EDIT: The refund has been processed, and the CEO has been in touch to make sure everything is OK. Seems like we got there, it’s just a shame we can’t turn back time and try again…
Unfortunately long post. Quick version: Chartboost’s systems are broken and our ad campaigns are out of control. We’re haemorrhaging thousands of dollars through this, and it’s stopped us being able to promote our new game the way we intended. They’ve yet to respond.
Foursies came out on Thursday and I decided we’d invest some money in promoting it. Not a lot, by “big” app standards, but a lot for our little studio. I set aside a few thousand dollars for pay-per-install marketing.
What I wanted to achieve was twofold.
1. Getting liquidity into the game in the early stages, so that new users were not waiting an excessive amount of time to meet an opponent. While Katherine and I are jumping into games when we can, we can’t do this all the time – and our game lists are now huge!
2. To give the game a big push during the first weekend so it stands a chance of getting noticed. To give it a helping hand up the chart rankings for better visibility, to put it into the hands of more users who will tell their friends and to stand a better chance of getting seen by reviewers. We’ve sent review requests off the normal way, but for those that didn’t bite first time around, perhaps they’d notice our adverts in other games they’re playing and it would ring a bell. Who knows. The point was I wanted to burn this marketing budget quickly over a weekend, not drip-feed it over days or weeks.
Chartboost seemed perfect for that. We’ve been using their network to generate revenue for several months. It would have been longer if the terminology used in the dashboard was easier to understand. It’s a mess of language that took us a long time to get to grips with so it was a while before I was actually happy using the service to make money (never mind spending money with them). As it happens, I’ve recently discovered we’d still set up our adverts wrong – there’s a big learning curve.
Slowly, I tried out advertising in their network. It’s performance-based, so you only pay when someone installs the app. There’s also clever targeting by country and iOS versions that means you can pinpoint the users you want, and only pay as much as you can afford.
At least, that’s the theory.
We tried this out last month with Worcle, having seen that its revenue per user was the highest of all our games. We picked a bid, lower than the expected revenue per download, and let it run a while. The system lets you set a daily budget as well as a price per install, so we were basically going for the minimum $0.50 per install up to $100 per day.
Depending on the competition, this resulted in anywhere from 10 to 200 installs per day. On the busy days, things happened quickly and the budget was soon exhausted. You get an email as a warning when 75% of the budget is used, and it looks like they slow things down at that point so you don’t go over. Except you do – because you’re still charged for the stragglers who clicked an adverts a few hours ago but only just got as far as opening the app. That’s fair enough, but I started to gain confidence that we basically had control over the spending, give or take a few dollars.
So, when we came to launch Foursies, using Chartboost was high priority. I’d uploaded the artwork ahead of time, but it wasn’t possible to set up the advertising campaign until the app was live. A bit of an annoyance as they only ever seem to do this on California time. But I figured once the artwork was approved, we could run with that campaign with whatever targeting we wanted.
I transferred the first $1000 into our advertiser account. I’ve always played this cautiously – a few hundred dollars at a time at most – so this was a big commitment. As Foursies is not localised, I set up a campaign to target a few English-speaking countries.
The first day went pretty smoothly. I started by setting an $800 budget on this campaign, figuring that would make sure we don’t overspend on the first $1000 and then I’d be able to re-evaluate. Did we want to focus on one country in particular? Or focus on iPad rather than iPhone? Or did we need to tweak our bid to get better value?
There’s an interesting quirk of the Chartboost system that means that you are restricted in the changes you make once a campaign is in progress. For logical reasons, you can’t set a daily budget that’s higher than your account balance. But because it validates the budget figure every time you make a change, you have to reset the budget if you want to adjust your parameters.
So, after $400 had been spent and I wanted to increase the bid, I had to reset the budget at $600 – because that’s all that was left in my balance. That meant I’d only be getting another $200 or so of installs, not the $400 I was planning on.
So, given that it only took a few hours to use up all the money I’d allocated to this campaign so far, and to increase the budget to get things moving again would require moving twice as much as I needed into the advertising account each time (*) I decided to set up a number of different campaigns so I could have some finer-grained control over our advertising. One campaign for each country, each with its own bid and budget.
(* To increase the budget from the previous $800, which had been expired, to $1600, would require me to make the balance up to $1600 in order to be able to spend the difference of $800; the additional $800 would not be used. Follow?!)
Here’s where it started getting messy. The Chartboost dashboard – flaky at best – started timing out while I was adding those campaigns. I ended up with five copies of one of them, and there’s no “delete” option, only “archive”. So I archived off all the superfluous campaigns and double-checked the others.
Yes, the UK campaign is targeted to the UK. And it’s turned off. Yes, the Australia campaign is targeted to Australia. And it’s turned off.
That “turned off” part was very important. What I really didn’t want was all those new campaigns going live immediately when someone in California finally got round to approving them. I wanted to pick and choose which were live when, and for how much.
Turns out that when Chartboost approve a campaign, they automatically flick that switch to on. Which is extremely unhelpful. This happened at about 5am our time, so, I woke up this morning to find my balance gone and all those campaigns running at the same time.
Remember how I’m cautious about the amount in my account balance? It’s because I want to have complete control over my spending. Apparently it doesn’t work. What’s horrible about this is that the system didn’t stop delivering adverts once I’d run out of money. It seems to have slowed down a bit, but it’s still going. At breakfast, I was about $800 in the red! A few hours later it’s now over $1200.
How does a campaign with a $200 daily budget (because that’s what I started all the new ones off with) go more than $1000 over budget?
There was no “75% used” email and no “you’ve run out of money” email like I’ve seen in the past. The campaigns are running away and spending money they don’t have. It’s terrifying.
Oh, and remember all that country targeting I carefully set up. That seemed to get lost in the process too. That UK campaign that’s spent all the money had no country targetting. This all started at about 5am, which is completely the wrong time for English-speaking countries. We got some traffic – but from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong… later, Eastern Europe… people who likely wouldn’t be able to follow the game’s tutorial, nor understand which of the text-labelled buttons to press to start a game.
So not only was I spending way more than I’d specified, their system decided to throw all this money away on users who were generally no good for my game.
Here’s another dumb quirk with Chartboost’s dashboard. Because I have a negative balance now, there is no daily budget figure I can set that allows me to make any changes to my campaigns!
This is blocking me from making any changes on those runaway campaigns. I can’t change the country targeting, or the bid, or even flick the switch to turn it off. That’s right – I can’t even disable these ad campaign!
I’m basically at their mercy now. I have an ever-increasing negative balance which, of course, I will be contesting with every ounce of my being, because it’s clearly a software screw up that’s honouring neither our daily budget values, nor the account balance.
But that’s not the point. I should be using today to give our game a push during this time-sensitive launch window; advertising it effectively to the countries I wanted at the times I wanted, and staying in control of that spend.
To regain control of the Chartboost dashboard right now, I’d have to deposit $1500 to have $300 of advertising to use. That doesn’t make sense to me. That would be saying the out-of-control spending so far is all OK, and it’s absolutely not.
So I don’t think there’s any other way to put this than they’ve killed our launch. Gee thanks, Chartboost. Now, reply to my damn emails and tweets, would you please?