How PlayMesh used hardcore savages and trash talk to push Valor HD into the top grossing app charts

For mobile developers, getting onto the Top Grossing iPhone app charts is hitting the jackpot. An app in the No. 1 spot can earn as much as $12 million a month in revenue, and even a lower entry is still incredibly lucrative. Quarter Spiral’s Ethan Levy estimates the No. 25 top grossing app sees over $13,000 in sales for every day it holds that position on the US top grossing chart.

In October, PlayMesh was able drive its strategic combat game Valor HD from No. 139 to No. 25 on the Top Grossing iPhone app chart by encouraging what Shawn Foust, the company’s VP and game lead for the title calls “the hardcore savagery” of its players.

The results were  a 30 percent increase in per day engagement, a 10x increase in the number of paying users and a 50 percent increase in the average spend per player. We recently sat down with Foust to learn more about PlayMesh’s turn to hardcore strategy.

Inside Mobile Apps: Valor HD recently gained 108 spots on our top grossing app chart. That’s impressive. What did you do?

Shawn Foust, vice president and Valor game lead, PlayMesh: It wasn’t the result of standard machinations. We didn’t spend an extra dollar, we didn’t go on some giant advertising campaign, we didn’t have a massive sale in game. We did a community initiative and it had an enormous impact on our revenue.

Our game is essentially a series of separate instances called worlds. Each one of those worlds has individual settings that you can modify, and each one of those worlds contains normally between 20,000 and 50,0000 players. Players had began to ask us a lot of questions around world 100, since we had 85 worlds and players were wondering what we’re going to do something special for 100.

We began to ask ourselves what were the things about the game that we really wanted to highlight, what were the things that we really thought the players would really engage in. A lot of the top players have been anxious about meeting other top players from different worlds so they could face off, and we hadn’t given them that opportunity. What we began to do was to market world 100 as a highly competitive environment where all the best players would be. Ultimately it was a test on whether or not this highly competitive game would result in better monetization, greater retention and higher engagement. The answer was a really big yes on all three.

IMA: Can you describe what the financial impact was?

Foust: On per user basis monetization clearly it went up. What I can say is our daily revenue 4x’d. There’s an enormous uptrend on a per player basis, it was essentially up across the board. Our relevant metric is we judge after two months of a world cycle and we haven’t got to the judging point yet.

IMA: You’re new to the game lead position — can you describe what you’ve been doing since you started working on Valor HD?

Foust: The first month and a half was design. All the features that I designed are going to be released about a month from now. Those features are going to be essentially a pure bet on competitiveness. We are just ramping up the savagery in the game really significantly. It’s already I would say an outlier in terms of competitiveness compared to other games. Honestly world 100 for us was a really important turning point to see whether or not players were going to respond to that competitiveness.

IMA:  You said that it was already competitive and now you’re tripling down on it. Are we talking League of Legends style competitiveness?

Foust: I really have an objection to other games that don’t attach meaningful consequences to the decisions the players make. There’s a lot of games where they monetize the progression of the player, and when he finally gets through all the content there’s nothing for them to do. In our game, once you’ve exhausted all of the content that’s actually when the game starts. when there’s nothing left to build that’s when everyone starts to get really aggressive and attack everyone else.

I wanted to bring back competitiveness earlier in the game, so people are competitive not only once they’ve built up their entire army, they’re competitive 16 hours in. That’s what we think the really big opportunity is. We’re all hardcore League of Legends players here. We all love Starcraft. It’s the type of players we are, It’s the type of players we hire. It’s really what we’ve wanted to do with the game. It’s just there’s a period of time of transition from being a self-funded development team to a venture backed team and that transition required a lot of time on infrastructure and scaling up. [Editor’s Note: PlayMesh raised $6 million from MK Capital in August, 2011.] Now that we’ve got to that point we can really ask ourselves how we want to distinguish our game.

IMA: Are you worried too much competitiveness early in the game will turn people off? Are you willing to trade a wider user base with a smaller more competitive user base that will monetize more?

Foust:  I cannot wait to trade away the casual users. I don’t want them in my game.

The simple answer is I’m looking for the hardcore savages. Those are they players that are unapologetic in their dedication to a game. Players who log in at 3am to attack while the other player is asleep. That’s the type of player that we’re after.

In addition to the competitive marketing we did [for world 100] we also added an interesting event where we had the entire PlayMesh team join the game and play openly. Everyone knew who we were and normally we play under different monikers. We issued a formal declaration of war and basically spent two weeks trash talking our players, then we put bounties on our head to give people additional benefits for taking us out. I’m sad to say that while I was on a plane yesterday I was destroyed. The amounts of counter trash talking I’m currently experiencing is breathtaking. It’s allowed us to get an idea of how dedicated the community is to the game. When you really see people coordinating across three dozen guilds to wreck you, it’s kind of gratifying and terrifying.