How many mobile games developed and operated by a team of 16 people can boast a global offline presence, prevailingly organic user base and successful esports part? I know of one: Turborilla’s staple title Mad Skills Motocross, which was featured on 33 million Red Bull cans in the United States last summer. The company is also in the midst of developing a new sequel, Mad Skills Motocross 3.

We met with Turborilla’s CMO Bryan Stealey to talk about the incredibly realistic physics of their games, user retention and the marketing strategies that have helped it to perform so well since launching 10 years ago. Keep reading to find out more about the amazing journey of Turborilla’s Mad Skills series, its challenging esports, organic reach and future plans.

Bryan, what makes your game stand out from other action sports games?

Initially there were a couple of mobile side-scrolling racing games, like Ricky Carmichael’s games, but we were one of the first to really integrate with the actual sport and the real world. Other games mostly tend to be obstacle course style, where you try to get through a really challenging track with loops and bumps that you have to get over. More of a trial-style game. Ours was a hardcore racing game, not really obstacle. The elements of realism and physics are such that real fans of the sport understand and appreciate these features. I don’t think anybody connects with the actual sport like we do: we became a part of the culture of global motocross racing. It made it easy to target our core players, who are motocross fans.

Generally games soft launch, buy traffic, analyze users, iterate, launch, buy more traffic, hopefully get featured, and then build organic traffic. In your case the majority of your traffic is organic, how?

Well, it really started with the first game. We began to build our base, and once it was done we’ve always just been able to leverage that. In those days, it was all about getting featured in the App Store. Or having a good position in the charts, because it meant visibility. I don’t think that it works the same way anymore.

The way for us to make a splash was to make as much noise in a short time period as possible, like two days. I spent months and months working out a plan, working every relationship I had to get people to talk about the game in the course of those two days. And it went pretty big. It was a really aggressive marketing plan, focused on a very short period of time. It got us into 40s globally on the paid charts of the Premium Game. We were all pretty surprised when we got a note from Apple a day or two after our launch asking us for feature assets, we were like “WOW, OK”. The next thing you know, we were featured and installs went through the roof. It just worked. A lot of people played it. One racer plays a motocross game that he or she loves, they tell other people they race with, and then they want to race each other.

I don’t think at this point if you went to a serious motocross track, you’d be able to find a lot of people who don’t know our games. It’s mostly just word of mouth, excellent search, and App Store optimization. If you’re into motocross, or any of the relevant terms, we’re right up top. We certainly get a lot of installs from App Store optimization.

When it comes to having mainly organic users, retaining those users and creating new content for them becomes more important. What are your main tools for player retention?

We created a number of different bikes that progressively get faster. It created a reason for people to keep going, so that they could get these new bikes. Plus, all of them could be unlocked for free. Our monetization has never been super aggressive. You could play all the way through Mad Skills Motocross 2 without ever spending a penny. The only thing that you can buy is cosmetic stuff, you can’t buy a competitive advantage in the game. That helped retain people.

Back with Mad Skills Motocross 1 we also did what we called tournaments. We held them every few months. It was a one week round, that involved 1 or 2 tracks, and everyone in the world who wanted to participate could race together on the same track. It was all about everybody seeing who could ride that track the best, and work their way to the leaderboard. With Mad Skills Motocross 2 we decided to do that every single week and make them a core part of the game, renaming the event dimension jam. It’s been up for 5 years and we’ve had nearly 300 jam rounds in Mad Skills Motocross 2. We do jams in Mad Skills BMX 2 as well. That helps with retention, but it’s not enough.

We are trying to develop a metagame. The physics and competitive nature of the game are extremely good, so what we need to do is create the ability for people to race at series. We need better, smarter events, where people can compete against others at a similar skill level. Just like in real life.

In jam, right now there are 100,000 people playing in a week. If you’re in the top 1,000, you’re an elite player. Though it’s not very exciting to finish in the 1,000’s at something. You could be a really good player and you might still finish at 4,000. We need to figure out a way to subdivide people and let them play against others in a meaningful competitions. We need to work out a points system like a real racing series, where there’s a number of rounds and each round you can ride a certain number of points based on how you finish. Then we create a championship based on that. It’s astounding, we’ve made Mad Skills Motocross for so long and we’ve never done that properly, that’s one of the biggest areas for improvement in Mad Skills Motocross 3 for sure.

Esports in mobile is widely talked about, but not a lot of companies or games participate. You seem to be very effective in that context.

Even before I knew the phrase esports, I thought of our game as a sport, an online sport. I really felt like we needed to create the right metagame, so it behaves more like a sport than a game. Jam was an attempt to start moving down that road, and some of the things in Mad Skills Motocross 3 are an attempt to move further. Our games are a great fit for genuine online competition.

For our third world championship we flew 12 people to Stockholm, the best players in the world  who made it through the qualifying procedure. We had some people from Bolivia, a guy from the Philippines, a guy from New Zealand, a number from the States, a couple from Nordic countries. We had pretty good representation when it comes to our global players.

And none of this would have happened without out partner G-Loot, who manage all of our cash-gaming stuff on IOS. You pay an entry fee and win money based on how you finish. These guys have produce our world championships, put them together, lined up the studio, dealt with all the travel arrangements and with our help come up with qualification systems for the competition.

How do you analyze your players and their involvement in the game? What metrics do you pay the most attention to?

We pay attention to D1, D7, and D30 retention rate, those are sort of where our big focus is right now. We’ve found that once we get a player to that D30 point, they tend to stay with us for a really long time. Our D7, D30 retention numbers are good, but we would like to improve those early days retention numbers. Our game is called Mad Skills Motocross for a reason: it’s not an easy game to play. It looks like what it is, but once you start - especially if you start playing with people who are a little bit faster than you - you really have to learn how to ride that bike to be fast. Some people probably give up before they learn. But there are others who, if they stuck with it a little bit, would love it long term. So a big part of our focus is figuring out how to improve those early retention numbers and create more long-term whales.

I tried to learn how to play and I can say it’s pretty challenging. But you’re also like, “No! I have to keep playing!”

Exactly! If you look at the restart button in our game, you’ll notice little symbols indicating swear words because frustration is such a big element. It’s a big part of a lot of mobile and video games actually. So if it could be just right from the frustration standpoint, it can make a person try again and again. We’ve been pretty good at that.

Have you tried paid user acquisition?

We wanted to, because we knew that it could work. We thought it might be a way for us to pull in users who we aren’t connected with through the sport itself. We wanted to but didn’t have anyone on-staff with the experience, so we outsourced user acquisition to a third party. We tried them out with Mad Skills BMX 2 and Motocross 2. The game just doesn’t monetize well enough for it to scale on those titles We’re trying to make sure with Mad Skills Motocross 3 it will work. It’s important for us to be able to successfully use monetization within the game.

Other than UA, what else do you outsource?

We used to manage our advertising in house, and that was frustrating, everything we tried never seemed to make any major difference. Managing our own waterfall or trying to change the order of companies, and it just got to be a little bit frustrating. It took a lot of time and it didn’t seem to make any difference. So that’s something that we outsource to Appodeal now. We also outsource a lot of our user acquisition stuff. We are still a small team, there’s only 16 of us in total.

Having a very loyal audience that stays with you forever, you want to be cautious about monetization. What are your main strategies here?

Traditionally, our big view is not to monetize a competitive advantage. That hamstrings you as a developer. It’s tough. Players can buy bikes if they don’t want to put in the time to unlock them in Mad Skills Motocross 2, so that’s a big source of our in-app revenue. However, the vast majority of players go through the achievements to unlock the bikes for free. We’ve always been careful not to sell a competitive advantage. If you can buy a faster bike and be a better player, because you paid for it, it kills the competition.

I also think we have an opportunity to monetize fashion more effectively. Fashion is huge in action sports. Skaters run in their Vans, and they’re wearing specific brands. The same goes for motocross racers and every action sport athlete in the world.We haven’t taken this idea very far in our game. But we’re trying to figure out what we can do to improve our monetization without ruining player experience, and that’s always a challenge. We have some ideas for Mad Skills Motocross 3 and I hope they’re right.

I guess no one has answers to those questions, you just keep testing. Why did you decide to try monetization and how did it turn out for you?

I can’t remember whether we first tried advertising in Mad Skills Motocross 1 or BMX 1, but it worked out well right from the start. When we integrated the first ad network in the game, right away we were making a decent amount of money every day. All of a sudden everything became about balancing how much and where we were delivering. How can we do this without angering or inconveniencing players, without them feeling something negative. Eventually we just did what so many other developers do: if you pay for something in the game, you won’t see ads unless you choose to. That’s fair as far as I’m concerned. You can play through the game and never spend any money at all. That’s fine, we designed the game for you to be able to do that. But there will be some ads.

We don’t go overboard with ads, we try to implement them at natural stopping points so we’re not interrupting anyone’s flow. We did recently  increase the number of ads a little bit. We felt like we were not being quite aggressive enough. We haven’t gotten any complaints, and it pumped our revenue up 10% or 20%. And ads make up about 20% of our overall revenue.

Did you ever do something that didn’t work, something that you learned from?

One thing that we tried to do that hasn’t been a failure, but hasn’t worked out as well as it might: game subscriptions. I’m not sure how successfully most game companies have done this, but we thought we could do a sort of subscription that adds new tracks to compete on. We’ve done that, and some people liked it, but it wasn’t as big as we thought it could have been. It was definitely worth our time of course, we’re still pursuing it.

What’s the main lesson you’ve learned from launching and supporting your titles?

I probably haven’t thought much about that before. I’d say it’s sticking by our base, caring for acquirers who have put us in this position in the first place, understanding how they want to play this game and not compromising what has already worked out well for us. We haven’t tried to become something that we’re not, we haven’t tried to discount our player base, so that we can go after new players with new styles that our core won’t like. We stuck with what we thought our players would love, and it keeps working out.

We’ve considered different paths, even different styles of games, but in the end we know what our lane is. We know who our people are, we do something other people don’t do, and we’ve managed to distinguish ourselves in a pretty big niche. Motocross and supercross racing is a big sport. In the US, it’s the second biggest motosport behind NASCAR. These sports fill stadiums and have 50-60 thousand fans coming up to watch races. I think sticking by the fans and really respecting that our player base has paid dividends for us have both been important.

If we caught up a year from now, what changes do you imagine for your company and titles?

Mad Skills Motocross 3 will be out. There will be a robust system of events unlike anything we’ve done in the past, it will be very Liveops based, and I’ll be very busy! Another thing I would probably talk about a year from now is our move to consoles, which we’re working on for the Mad Skills Motocross IP. We’re not just gonna port the game, the goal is to create an original game designed for consoles. A year from now we’ll be pretty far into that project, but I think we’ll still be most focused on Mad Skills. We haven’t even touched skateboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking, skiing, or surfing. There are always weird niche action sports too, the stuff that Red Bull sponsors. There are so many. People do crazy things.