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What's going on with the 'fake' mobile game ads on TikTok?

Find out why the ads just keep getting weirder.

Have you ever been on TikTok for so long that you get served a video by TikTok itself telling you to stop it and go to bed? It happens to me, dear reader, once or twice a week.

And when I'm in TikTok's clutches, powerless to stop the cooking tips, pithy album reviews, rug-cleaning videos and clips of people throwing rocks off bridges, there are ads for mobile games. Really weird ads for mobile games.

You'll have seen them too, surely, particularly the ones for Top War: someone talks over footage of what looks like the game, saying they're exposing 'fake game ads on TikTok'. The action you see in these Top War ads suggests it's a simple two-lane runner-type game. If you actually install Top War, however, you will play a few stages of that runner game, and then the 'real' game reveals itself: a strategy builder-battler.

So to quickly summarise: you're being duped into downloading a game by an ad that says it's exposing fake game ads, which is itself a fake game ad. Weird.

Above: Please enjoy this fake game ad that claims to expose fake game ads while also literally being a fake game ad.

There's history here. These ads are effectively the supercharged, mutant descendants of those saucy 'save me, my lord' Evony banner ads from the late 2000s. Those grubby ads promised a lot more than what the brave souls who clicked through on those banners actually got: a Civilization-style free-to-play game. (Evony, by the way, is not just still going, but is in rude health and part of the modern 'weird mobile game ad' industrial complex. More on that later.)

The reason misleading ads have persisted all this time is very simple: they work. Unlike the banner ads of yore, though, today's mobile game ads revolve around 'user acquisition', a slightly bleak term, but an important one to understand.

You really need to know your RPD from your ARPDAU in the jargon-filled world of mobile games. Never fear, though: I'll try to explain all this without using too much lingo.

This one's my favourite 'fake game' ad because it says 'Part 3' and I've searched for weeks for parts one and two. I don't think they exist.

Picture the scene: a mobile game developer works out the average player's lifetime spend in its game. Then it goes to a user acquisition (UA) company and pays it to put ads in front of players likely to download its game based on their tastes, just like the programmatic ads you see across the web.

The game developer pays the UA company per install, and the trick is to acquire users at a lower price than their expected lifetime spend. Now imagine this process at eye-watering scale: if your user acquisition cost is $1, for example, and your average player spend is $2, you can pump a million dollars into UA now and you'll - probably - get two million dollars back over time. Bingo!

The big mobile game developers that crack this formula have near-infinite UA budgets, because the more they spend, the more money they make. The really vital part of this high stakes, big money gamble is that the ads have to actually work.

And so of course these ads are relentlessly A/B tested to just get that install. Whatever works. Over time and through rigorous testing, some mobile game marketers found that it's more effective to present your game as a runner or a puzzler than tell people what the game actually is.

Above: Hero Clash begins with these Doge-based physics puzzles and then eases you into the real game, an idle card battler.

Why? Because if you get enough people playing your game, a certain percentage of players will always stick around, even if they have been gently nudged into playing a different game to the one they thought they downloaded. And some of them will end up spending enough money for the developer to profit, eventually.

Let's pause here. Would you like a sip of water? I would. Okay. Let's go again.

These UA ads tend to go in cycles. For a while, it was the ones where characters and items were locked away in little rooms. You pull pins out in the right order to make the guy run into the treasure, instead of getting him mauled by a minotaur. (Callback! Evony is one of the games running ads like this today. Behold!)

@Evony

while I actually FOUND this game.

♬ Promoted Music - Evony

Above: Evony puts out these 'pull the pin' UA ads to get bums on seats, then the real game, a builder-battler, takes over.

More recently 'save the Doge' games got big, in which you draw lines on the screen to protect the Doge from a swarm of angry bees. Lately, it's been these runner-type ads. And since Apple and Google have been clamping down on user targeting lately, these ads have now moved to TikTok, where they're usually accompanied by some lo-fi commentary to make it look like a 'real' TikTok.

Which brings us back to what Top War is doing currently: presenting you with the game you see in the TikTok ad, but then easing you into the real 4X strategy game that lies beneath.

There's a wilder, more brazen example: a game called X-Hero, an auto card battler. For the last six months or so, its developer Bingchuan has been swapping out the first few minutes of the game to fit whatever pretend game is working best in its UA ads. For a while it was a dinosaur-themed runner, then it was the Doge puzzles, then a cops-and-robbers maze puzzle. It's gone back to the Doge thing most recently. It's kind of amazing, really.

X-Hero's App Store screenshots show the wildly incongruous ad gameplay - the Doge game - next to the real game, a card-battler. Apple and Google try to police this stuff, so the developer has to show both to get through review.

And it's something Apple and Google - mobile's platform holders - can't really do that much about. As long as the games do have some of the gameplay shown in the ads, they'll get through onto the live store after a short review process.

These tech giants do not behave in the same way as traditional platform holders like PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo or Valve. In lots of ways Apple and Google don't really care what happens in mobile games, as long as no-one's getting viruses on their phones through their stores and they get their 30 percent cut of every in-app purchase.

And so some corners of the mobile games business are a bit of a wild west as a result. Even companies as large and wealthy as Apple and Google can't police all of this stuff, so unless something drastic happens, it'll keep on going - and continue to get weirder and weirder.


Neil Long is a former App Store editor who runs mobilegamer.biz, a website for the mobile games industry.