Monetisation: Let’s go Whaling

An oil sheik and a wall street trader got into a fight, who won?

All the other players who got to play for free! (And the game company)


This week, I will finally get to the big monetisation article. It’s a subject lots of people want to know about, even though their problem is often elsewhere – in retention.

Anyway, let’s get down to it with everything I have learned over the years about monetisation. This one is focused on In-App Purchases (IAPs). Next time, I will write about the other half of the story, which is advertising.

Let’s start with the most important thing: have enough to sell. As I have outlined before, the most important rule of a mobile F2P game is not to run out of content. If there is always something you can pay or play to get, you will have the basics for both retention and monetisation. Top games now have in-game economies worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I’ve seen a few different ways to break down monetisation into categories. One way advocated by Will Luton is to offer each Bartle Type their own things to buy. Content for Explorer types, Customisation for Socialisers, Competitive Advantage for Killers, and Convenience of speedups for Achievers.

The problem with this is that Content is incredibly expensive to make. Basically, no team can create new content at the pace required to keep superfans satisfied. Customisation of purely aesthetic things is nice, but will usually generate only single-digit percentages of the income. The vast majority of the income is likely to come from things that give a meaningful in-game advantage as opposed to fancy hats that lack any effect on gameplay.

Competitive advantage means pay-to-win, which can be very lucrative with the right approach. However, make sure that you do not overdo it and end up with an unbalanced game that feels unfair to new players and anyone not spending money. The power-gap between payers and non-payers should feel reasonable.

This leaves us basically with the speedups that Will calls “Convenience”. Most of F2P revenues come from selling different versions of speedups. It is similar, but slightly different from straight-off pay to win.

Think of two friends: one with a lot of time, but little money, and his career driven friend with more money but less time. The speedups should allow them to progress at the same pace. The career girl can pay to keep pace with her friend who has more time to grind.

This brings us to monetisation by stage of progress. I really like Dimitar Draganov’s way of breaking down games into Hook, Habit and Hobby. In short, the Hook is what draws you in. Great production values, a unique game, etc.. After that the game has to develop into a Habit that you do several times per day. Last, is the Hobby phase where the players spend more time thinking about the game and it’s different layers.

Early on, in the Hook phase, the game should offer some great value “ice breakers”. Something quite cheap that feels very valuable – designed to convert players into paying customers. Converting people early has a several virtues. First off, it’s the biggest step for a customer to take. If they do buy the ice breaker, they are way more likely to buy other things later. It’s also great for retention. Someone spending early on is mentally committing to the game, and will play it more often.

In the Habit phase, it’s all about progressing through levels or building out your village, etc.. Here, we will be selling faster progress. With premium currency speedups you’ll be getting your cool new stuff now, instead of after a couple of days or weeks of grinding. A few things to think about at this stage:

-can you prolong it with using gachas instead of direct upgrades? By making upgrades into lotteries, you can both add excitement, and effectively make the game longer. Look up “Skinner Box”, if you want to know why that works..

-no hard pay gates! Having a level that you can only pass by paying is still a bad idea. The free players are still valuable for you marketing your game, and producing content in PvP games.

-try to keep an acceptable power gap between spenders and non-spenders in the game.

Last, the Hobby phase. This is where you have the superfans who have already upgraded their stuff maximally. To these players you can sell consumable boosters of different kinds – effectively allowing for an infinitely high spending cap in the game. For instance, in many war games, this means speeding up training of armies that are then consumed in the next battle.


Before diving into the tricks, take a minute to decide how you want to earn your money. Is it the King model of relatively low spend from a huge volume of users? Or is it the Machine Zone model of very high spend from a much smaller number of superfans?


That’s the framework. Now for some of the tricks used.


The Hot State – Thinking Fast

One of the best books about behavioural psychology is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. He’s one of the founders of the field, and got a Nobel prize for it. Even the name of the book gives us a first hint about how we should design our games.

In short, our brains work in two ways – the fast way (intuition) and the slow way (thoughtful reasoning). Without effort, you can tell what 2+2 is, and complete the phrase “bread and …”. To tell me what 17 * 24 is, you have to start your slow reasoning brain with quite a lot of effort.

The thing is, no one will start the slow reasoning brain to make a purchasing decision in a mobile game. It does not matter if you are offering great value. It’s just too much effort to ask.

In practise this means that you might (as we did) offer help to the player in two ways. Some booster is very powerful and is offered up-front before playing – you have to plan ahead and think a little before you see it’s a good investment. Another booster is available right when you need it in the game – like a revive button available for a few seconds after dying. This rule explains why the latter one will be much more popular than the first. Aim for instant gratification!


Loss aversion & Endowment effect

People are odd in the way that we value things that we already own higher than things that we do not own. I will work harder to keep $100 in my pocket – compared to the work I will do in order to gain an extra $100. This means that you can always give the player some resources, and then threaten to take them away. This is way more likely to trigger use of hard currency than a straightforward sale of the same amount of resources.

A lot of games lets players collect resources during level, and then takes the resources back at the end if the players do not finish – and offer the player an opportunity to keep what they gained by paying hard currency.

Basically this has been used in arcade games since the 80s. Put in another coin when you are at your personal best so that you do not have start over from the beginning.

For a deeper understanding of the psychology at work, pick up either “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, or “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely.


Offers and Scarcity

People value things that are hard to get. Underneath it all might very well be the same triggers as for Loss Aversion and the Endowment Effect. Scarcity creates demand. Even if nothing needs to be scarce in a digital game, you should create rare items that players lust after. Time limited offers are a form of scarcity that play on the fast thinking and loss aversion aspects to become a really great monetisation tool. Combine with gacha (see Clash Royale)!


Subscription model

Try to sell things that pay off over time – the more you play, the more value you get out of it. This helps monetisation and retention at the same time. For instance, the Clash of Clans builders work like this. Buying an extra builder with hard currency allows you to progress faster – but only if you also log in more often.


IKEA effect

People value things they have put a lot of time and effort into. The value is not only tied to how useful things are, but also to how much effort it cost me to get it. This allows you to get people more attached to your game, because they created something in it. And the more attached they are, the more it makes sense to spend hard currency. This shows up as the “investment” phase in the Hook cycle from Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” book about how to build habit forming products.

See the Hook cycle:



When people don’t know the price of things, the first suggested number will become their “Anchor”. That’s why a good wine list in a restaurant starts off with a premium bottle costing hundreds of dollars. When you get to the bottles for merely $50, they will feel affordable. People also tend to go for the mid-range item that feels like good value for money.

To use this trick, start off by suggesting to players that they buy something really expensive – expecting them to turn it down. Then offer a good discount, or sell another item that offers better value.


Social Proof

We are herd animals. People do what other similar people do – it’s the social norm. In your game, you would want the social norm to be that people pay for IAPs. Under no circumstance should you tell your players that the majority of them do not pay.  If, by some chance, the majority of a sub-group of players DO pay, you should absolutely let everyone in that group know about it. Paying would then become the social norm for that group. As an example, you could tell everyone in the clan about it every time one clan member spends hard currency.



Availability is a shorthand for what we judge as likely to happen. What people hear about often they will judge more likely to happen. Thus, people will estimate that tornadoes kill more people than asthma, even though asthma kills 20 times more. Tornadoes are news, asthma is not.

To use this one, you should tell clan mates when one player finds a rare item. It will make them judge it as more likely to find one for themselves when they often hear about others finding them.


Just the right amount of choice

Think about the right amount of choice to offer your players. More is not always better. Look up the Jam Experiment to find out why:

On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.


Whales take longer to convert

There have been some suggestions that heavy spenders take their time before they start spending. For instance, look at this from Game Analytics.gameanalytics-graph-r471x

Some stats of this kind are slightly misleading due to successful companies building in-house analytics, and therefore not being part of the dataset. Anyway, a game we know well suggests that about 50% of revenue comes after day 120. So, once again, make sure your game can be played for a very long time.


Core loop goes through the Store

Make the store where players spend hard currency as central to the game as possible. Try to make sure that the core loop goes through here, so that players are accustomed to it and just a tap away from spending. In all its simplicity, Hill Climb Racing does this beautifully. You drive a race, and after it is over, you are taken straight to the upgrade store, from where you choose to drive again. After each race you are therefore reminded of available upgrades.


There are some tricks that I have never seen used but could still work based on research in behavioural psychology.


The Labeling Technique

This is something I have not seen anyone try. In short, if you put a label on someone, they are more likely to behave according to that label. Tell people that they are generous and free spending on brilliant art such as your game. Correctly done, it might increase spend by over 10%.


Ask to spend Because..

Another similar technique is that people are more likely to accept a request if they are given a reason to do so. Which means that you can ask them to spend because… For instance, try explicitly stating in the IAP shop that the game was made by an indie dev that appreciates contributions to keep producing and maintaining the game.


Sad and Tired Players

When people are sad or tired, they are far more likely to comply with what someone else tells them. Fortunately, I have not yet seen anyone trying to use these as tricks. No game that I know of makes will wake people up in the middle of the night, tell them that their dog just died, and then ask them for a big IAP spend!

Last, the joke up there in the beginning. That’s to remind you that you get the highest spend from rich competitive guys. Remember that less than 1% of players can contribute a large part of your money.

Selling your company

After taking a good old nordic-style (i.e. nice and long) vacation, I’m back. This week is about selling game companies. Unfortunately, I have not sold mine for untold fortunes. However, my friends at the next door game company sold theirs.

Let’s start off with why you would even consider selling your company. Some people start game companies intending to keep them. Investors usually call these companies “lifestyle businesses”. It is the sort of company where the founders get to work on the games they want, without ambitions of growing large and making fortunes. Actually, working on the “games they want” might be a little strongly worded. “Making the games the market wants” is unfortunately closer to the truth if the founders want to stay in business more than a few years, but you get the point.

For many companies, there are good reasons to consider selling, if someone offers enough money. Basically any company with investors has to work towards selling the company. The point of investing in a startup is to tie up money for some 3-8 years, and then get it back with a nice profit (say 10X your money), so that you can re-invest it in the next startup. For this, even a small trickle from sharing the profits will not be enough. The investors will usually want to free up all the money they put in, by selling their stake. An external buyer will let them do that. Which is why any investment deal includes a clause stating that the aim of the company is to grow to point where it can be sold.


Now let’s for a moment go back to my friends’ business. They did not have any external investors or shareholders apart from the two founders. Why would you want to sell in such circumstances? In short, to get some stability and lock in your gains. In case anyone missed it, the games market is very volatile, and you never know when you happen to hit a dry spell of several flops in a row. Even for a successful company, a few years of developing games killed in soft launch will be very taxing for the company’s finances. Which means that an offer from a bigger acquirer that can provide cash for the founders, and a buffer for the company, can look very tempting.

Now, let’s look at it from the acquirer’s perspective. I have some experience doing that, as I worked for Nokia Corporate Business Development before founding my own company. Basically, I was on the team looking for startups to buy.

For us as buyers, the question was always: “why is the startup more valuable as part of us than as an independent startup?”. The acquirer wants some strategic benefit. Often it is about a large established company trying to play catch-up with the new trends in their industry. For instance, EA bought Playfish in 2009 for $400 million to get into the social games boom that they were late to.

At the other end of the scale are the so-called “acqui-hires”. It’s a way for large companies of attracting talented workers by acquiring their companies as a way of hiring them. This is quite common in boom times in booming areas where it’s otherwise hard to hire top talent. Which means that it happens in San Francisco, and hardly anywhere else.

A recent trend out of Asia, and China in particular, is companies buying revenue and profits. These companies have a lot of cash from an existing profitable business, or from investors, and want to show growing revenues in new areas. They therefore invest their cash to be able to show growth e.g. in games business outside of China. This is usually done to look good to investors.

So much for why the parties come to the table to discuss buying and selling companies. Then the big question is “How much?”.

Answering that can be tricky, as there is not any generally accepted way of pricing startups. It comes down to how much the seller and buyer thinks it will be worth to them. In boom times, that’s going to be a whole lot more than at other times.

To get a starting point, we can look at how the company has been doing. On the stock market, companies are usually compared with the Price/Earnings ratio – P/E or PE for short. You take the price of all the stock of the company (Price) and divide it by how much profit the made (Earnings). For instance, for EA that would be some 300 million shares times $80 (price for a share) giving a total “Price” of $24 billion. This is then divided by the profit they made (1.1 billion), for a PE of slightly more than 20.

On the stock market, a rough rule of thumb is that a fair price is when the PE equals the growth percentage. Which means that investors buying EA stock estimate that EA can grow their profits by around 20% per year. Of course, this is very rough. If a company makes a loss one year, their PE will be sky-high. Likewise in boom times.

So where has the PE been for recent game company acquisitions? It was around 7 for the original sale of Supercell to Softbank. When Softbank sold to Tencent, they valued Supercell at some €9 billion, for €845 million in profits, for a PE slightly above 10.

For smaller companies, it seems similar. My friends’ company, was bought for mid-single digit millions and a high single digit PE – depending on what Price you use for calculating it. Which brings us to the next part: earn-outs.

Of course, it’s not only about the money. There are other aspects to buying and selling companies. The biggest among them for the buyer is how to keep the team they just bought working efficiently. This can be done with carrots and sticks. The carrots come in the form of delayed payouts and earn-outs. The sticks in the form of non-compete agreements.

The job of an earn-out is to to get the founders and key employees to keep working as hard after the acquisition as they did before. Therefore, part of the price they get will be dependent on them hitting some milestones in the years after the acquisition. Some 2-3 years afterwards is typical, with targets concerning revenue, profits, downloads, daily or monthly active users or similar.

The buyer is going to push a large part of the deal towards earn-outs, as that removes risk from them. The startups earlier investors are going to push in the other direction, as they lose control of the startup, and then have a large part of their investment return dependent on something they can no longer influence in any way. After all, the acquiring company can make changes to the team or strategy that makes it impossible to reach the earn-out targets. A few years can be a long time.

The other way of keeping key talent is simply forbidding them from leaving with non-compete clauses. Usually, that means that the key people (who got money in the deal), cannot just quit and start/join a competitor. There is some suitable time, up to a few years, after quitting that they cannot do that, without facing significant penalties.
That’s the rough outline of how it works. Now go out and sell your companies! Or actually… wait for someone to buy it. That’s after all how it actually works. It’s very hard to sell a company. Companies are bought, not sold. The acquirer will be the one who initiates it all.

Is Clash Royale Losing Steam?

Anyone with any interest in mobile gaming will know that Supercell released their 4th game, Clash Royale about 3 months ago now. The game has been another super-hit, and is for once something new and fresh on the otherwise quite stale top (grossing) charts.

There are several things that Clash Royale did beautifully, but it also has some weaknesses. It is by now dropping on the charts that it dominated for the first months.

Let’s start with the good stuff:

-Instead of an energy mechanic, they invented a new chest system. You win a battle, and you’re rewarded with a chest. Some chests take 3 hours to open, others 8 hours. It all results in a great pacing of the game, without the annoying “artificial” timers so often found in F2P games.

-The core game is very easy to play, deploying troops with a simple drag. Still, it has a lot of depth, with some 50 cards – carefully designed to complement and counter each other.

-There is an elegant gacha mechanic in finding the cards, and a double cost of gold and cards to upgrade. It makes you want to spend on the missing resource.

-Synchronous multiplayer gives a completely new level of engagement, previously rare in mobile games.


Quite deservedly, the game shot straight into the #1 top grossing position in most countries. It kept that up for a few months, but is by now dropping below Clash of Clans into positions #5-6. That’s still really, really great, but raises the question of why?

One reason is that the game starts to get grindy after a while. In a sense, all mobile F2P games do that, but personally I noticed it more in Clash Royale.

The core itself, with its inherent ~50% win rates felt like arm wrestling someone equally strong as I am. Which means that it quickly gets exhausting instead of fun. Personally, I would prefer a greater variance where I either clearly screw up and get crushed, or clearly crush the opponent. Asynchronous games can hide the problem by letting the attacker (who is active) win way more often than the defender (who is offline).

The Arena system also has both good and bad sides. It gives players a very clear progression path. The problem is that it is a very linear and one-dimensional progression. My progress along that path will quickly slow down, and if that’s what I care most about, I will feel as though I do not progress at all. In contrast, in Clash of Clans I cared about all of my buildings (and walls!), which meant that I felt I was always progressing with something.

One odd part about the game is that the basic play cycle does not loop the player through the meta-game parts where you upgrade cards. Usually, it’s a good idea to return the player to the upgrade screen after each round in the core game, but Clash Royale does not do that. It just leaves you on the main Battle screen where you can start the next battle or open a chest.

My top guess for why Clash Royale is dropping in the charts is still none of the above. It is that the first month on the App Store got such a tremendous boost that it just could not keep that level over the long-term. Clash of Clans built a huge fan base over the last 4 years. When Supercell launched another game under the Clash brand, there was a ready audience for it. Competitive players who care about the brand and about their own performance in the games.

I feel fairly certain that a large part of the committed (and high spending) Clash of Clans players immediately downloaded Clash Royale when it was released. After only a few rounds of testing, they figured out that the game was fun and competitive. They then proceeded to desire an early advantage compared to their friends (who also came over from Clash of Clans), and opened up the wallets to get a head start.


Apparently, some three quarters of early Clash Royale players were also Clash of Clans players. 
I would bet that it was this immediate inflow of high spending fans that quickly drove Clash Royale to the top. This effect is now diminishing. Some of the top spenders might already own the “perfect” deck of Clash Royale cards, and will need an update with more content before they can spend more. Therefore, my best guess is that Clash Royale will keep dropping awhile more before it settles on a sustainable level – likely still quite high up on the charts. Of course, continued development of the game can very well make it rise back up. I wouldn’t want to underestimate the good guys at Supercell.

Self Driving Cars and VR Headsets

Smartphones used to be nerdy. Using the alarm to wake up was the line between normal people (who only used phones to SMS and call) and unbearable nerds. Then smartphones happened, and suddenly it’s ok to use your phone for just about anything, except for actually making phone calls.

During the last 20 years, mobile phones and smartphones have been the most interesting developments in technology and society at large. Think about it: we still build houses the same way we did 20 years ago. We still have largely similar cars, homes, kitchens, schools, and cities in general. Even computers and laptops are fairly similar to what we had 20 years ago. Out of the things that affect our daily lives, smartphones have been by far the quickest to develop in the last 10 years (and mobile phones in the 10 years before that). Compared to them, the rest of society has just about stood still.

Sadly, the pace of change is now slowing down for smartphones. At least that’s sad if you like fast development – as I do. Sure, they will still get incrementally better, and get used by still more people, but the really big change is now behind us. By now, most people in developed countries are already using either an Android or iOS phone – with a large screen, and fast-enough processor.

Let’s take the screen as an example. Smartphone screens should be at a resolution peak by now. When Apple introduced the iPhone 4 they hyped it’s “retina” display that had more pixel density than your eyes could see. The limit according to them was 300ppi. Sony’s newest 4k display on a smartphone is now at 806 ppi. Even if Apple was hyping just a bit, there’s no point to increasing ppi anymore for smartphones. We simply can’t see the difference in normal use.

Of course, when the platform growth slows down, so does the growth of mobile games built on top the platform. So, what’s the next gaming trend after the big mobile boom?

There are a few suggestions. VR is certainly hyped up this year. Smartwatch games have not quite reached the same level of expectations. And e-sports have been growing. Is anyone of these the next big thing?

Let’s start with VR. I have to say, I’m a VR sceptic. It’s not so much about the technology, but rather about how it fits into people’s daily lives. Can you imagine using a VR headset on the bus? I certainly can’t. Anywhere public would be far too awkward for me to ever put those goggles on.

When I’m at home, it’s okay for me to watch TV together with my family. Playing a game on a PC is borderline okay with my family, but usually not. Putting on goggles where I completely shut out the rest of the family – that’s not going to be okay for a long while.

All of this points to VR DAUs being very low for a long time, even when calculating the complete DAU all the platforms together. For each platform – and each single game – the DAU will be extremely low.

Of course, low DAU just means that the F2P and mobile business models will not be viable. For some years to come, VR will work like consoles – the consumer pays up-front for expectations.
It does not matter that much how many hours they actually end up playing the game. It has to be quite a steep up-front payment to make up for the low volumes.
The only people who can really jump into VR early on are single people. The caricature I have in mind is a guy in his man-cave.

Of course, there are some VR experiences where you get to physically move around. To me, that feels much more interesting than a cockpit experience. That means, that the man-cave need to be quite large – further limiting the target group.

So, what we demand is: someone single who can put a lot of time into a very asocial and introverted hobby, with access to a man-cave that is quite large. Frankly, that sounds like teenage boys still living with their parents. Which is, therefore, my best guess at the initial customer group for VR.

VR screens still have a huge way to go. Apparently the human eye can see some 300 megapixles (by moving your eyes while the head is still). A 4k screen is 8 megapixels, Apple’s newest iMacs are at 15 megapixles. Which means that there is still quite some development ahead of us before we get to the ‘retina’ level for VR. We will still be able to see the individual pixels for some years.

Together this means that I do not believe VR will get anywhere near mobile games for the next 5 years when it comes to business potential / revenue from games. This guy might be close with the numbers.

For e-sports, VR could work. Especially with one of those physical rigs where you actually run to move inside the game.

Personally, I would be a lot more interested to watch an e-sport that included partly physical action. But maybe that’s just me.

What about some other trends? Smart watches have not taken off yet. Perhaps that’s just a well for us. Partly, they are a threat. If people start using watching as phone replacements, we are likely to lose revenue in the process. It seems that the larger the screen, the longer the game sessions, and the higher the spend from the consumer. Smartwatches are at the very extreme end of the scale, with up to a hundred 15 second sessions a day, and likely low spend per customer. Which means that I hope they stay as supplements rather than replacements for smartphones.

App Stores on smart TVs and set top boxes make those into light versions of game consoles. So far, there has not grown up any large game market around these devices. I don’t think these will get to any significant revenue in the next 5 years. My bet is that they will keep to less than 10% of the mobile game industry size.

Then there are a few developments coming up that could help grow mobile games. Rollable displays, such as the one Samsung demoed here, can make the screens in our pockets larger. And, as I already pointed out – larger screens usually mean larger revenues.

Another positive development for us are the self driving cars. It will free up people’s time while they commute, and a lot of that time will be spent playing games. In a way, American commutes might get a lot more similar to Japanese commutes. Cars become one-person subway trains, containing a bored person that craves distraction from their smartphone. Sounds promising…

Why you should make an Idle Game

I wrote last week about auto-play being one of the trends for mobile games currently. When pushed to it’s extreme, auto-play becomes an idle game. That is, a game that the player hardly plays at all. By then, we are simply left with a Skinner box.

If you are unfamiliar with Skinner boxes, go ahead and have a look at the Extra Credits explanation of them here. He will also explain to you why core gamers loathe the concept.


If Skinner boxes are so clearly bad, then why are auto-play features and idle games a trend? I’m actually late on commenting on the trend already. About a year ago, it was already all the rage, as both Gamasutra and Pocketgamer pointed out.



First, notice the “good” game mechanics that the Extra Credits video suggested we should use instead of what he calls Skinner Box Operant Conditioning. These were:

  • Mystery,
  • Narrative,
  • Novelty,
  • Mastery,
  • Mental Challenge and
  • Flow.

Really, that’s only 2 things, with 6 different names. Mystery, Narrative and Novelty are 3 different names for Stories, while Mastery, Flow and Mental Challenge is just 3 versions of, well, Mastery.

There are 2 things we can conclude here: the guy making the video is likely to be an Explorer/Achiever sort of Bartle type. 

And, games made with his suggestions can actually never work as (mobile) F2P games. Which is a shame, but also very hard to change. I believe Dimitar Draganov is right when he points out that making mobile F2P games for Explorers is very hard. Get his book from Amazon.

First off, no team in the world can create Novelty, Mystery and Narrative at the pace required to keep the game’s superfans happy. Players will simply burn through the story in days, while it will take you months to create more. A game relying on these just cannot keep the players coming back for years.

The same is very likely to be true for Mastery, Flow and Mental Challenge. In an earlier post, I examined why traditional puzzle games with Mental Challenges cannot work as F2P. 

Simply said, when the players get stuck, they will quit playing. With these sorts of challenges, there is no luck or grinding that can help you. When you’re stuck, you are stuck and will leave the game.

Other sorts of mastery won’t get your players stuck, but they are likely to feel stale after a few months of playing. It’s rare that a pure core without any progression on top can keep players long-term. Sure, for some player types, Chess and Go will keep their interest. The vast majority of the population will not make even those games into a daily habit. They will need some form of progression in the meta game.

Even core gamers often degrade into pure progression players eventually. When I have stopped playing the core game, I notice that I still keep playing the meta game for a while. When attacking starts to feel formulaic, I will still go back to the game just to collect resources, and upgrade something. I no longer bother with actually playing, but I do log in to progress. I have noticed the same pattern in colleagues – both in mobile games and in PC MMO games.

All of this means that progression mechanics are really super important for successful games that can be played for years.

This also ties into the evolution of the collection mechanics in F2P games. Early on, Tamagotchis demanded you to respond at a specific time. If you did not, they would punish the player by dying.

When F2P really took off in the west, appointment mechanics were popular. In FarmVille, I could choose what crops to grow, each with a different time until I needed to come back to harvest. If I missed the harvest window, the game would still punish me by having the crops wither.

The next step has been the Collect Anytime mechanic found in e.g. Clash of Clans. They just keep producing gold up to some limit. I can collect the gold at any time, but I will not lose it if I do not. Once I am at the gold limit, it will just stay there, without growing or shrinking. Of course, Clash of Clans still kept some of the punishing mechanics as well, since other players attack you and steal your gold.

Idle game mechanics are one more step towards being nice to the player. There is no longer any cap on how much you can earn without coming in to collect your resources. You will simply keep earning. Of course, if you come in often, you will be able to re-invest your resources into new production, and hence earn even faster.

Tamagotchis to Idle games becomes a continuum between using carrots or sticks to get the player to come back. Are you threatening the player with something bad happening if the do not keep playing, or are you rewarding them with something good?

I would guess that keeping some threats involved can keep players returning more often – until they miss a week and are severely punished – at which point they never ever play that game again. In contrast, a game like AdVenture Capitalist will keep on earning resources for me even when I’m not playing. If I get curious again after a month of being inactive, there will be a huge reward waiting for me in the game!

Back to why we should make Idle games. Most game designers are core players, and find it harder to grasp the retention/meta game. By forcing us to make a game without a real core, we have to get it. Which means that should make an idle game as a sort of F2P masterclass. If there is nothing else in the game, we have no excuses. We have to make a good meta game when that’s all there is.

With the recent successes of Idle games, I would bet that a small wave of them are now about to hit the App Store. As always, most of them will fail to find significant commercial traction. However, I think that even those games will teach valuable lessons to the teams that made them.

Trends in Mobile Games

The very first post I wrote on this blog was about test playing and deconstructing games. It is really, really useful to do, but we never seem to have enough time to do it as much as we should. Of course, you can learn a great deal by reading through game deconstructors that others have done. For instance, over at you can find a lot of good stuff.


Now, there’s something even better available. How about systematic deconstructions of all the top grossing games, as well as a lot of the lower ranked ones? Over at you can get that. The data there is down to a very detailed feature level analysis, together with trend-lines for the features and for different game genres.


They have analysed all these games, and are then running some sophisticated statistics to figure out which features are most important for getting a game to rise up the charts, and which features work well together. Of course, making a good game is not simply about ticking the box for a number of features. Nonetheless, it helps a lot to see what the successful games have in common. As an analogy, reading a recipe will not make you into a Michelin-star chef, but understanding which ingredients the best chefs often combine will still make you a better cook.


Also, bear in mind that this data will tell you how to rise on the App Store top grossing charts. Ad revenue will not show up on that chart, only IAP revenue. This will tilt the numbers in favour of complex games with large in-game economies, rather then the quick ad-driven volume games like what e.g. Ketchapp is doing. That said, below is a very brief summary of what the data tells us.


It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one when I tell you that the single most important area for App Store success currently has to do with publisher and brand. Branding a game with a well-known IP will help it break through the noise on the App Store. Something published by King, Supercell or Machine Zone is way more likely to break into the top charts than something published by small indie companies like our Tribeflame. On the one hand, it looks like this supports indies publishing through larger publishers. On the other hand, none of the companies who publish third party games have a really consistent track record – the three publishers mentioned above will only ever publish games developed in-house.


A second trend that you can see is that games are becoming ever larger in scope. According to this data, I helps a lot that the game is both broad – with lots of different troops, buildings, enemies, puzzle types, etc. – and deep with lots of levels, upgrades, etc.


To further stretch out the mass of the in-game economy, gacha mechanics are trending. This means that the player cannot directly buy some of the things they want. Instead they can buy lottery tickets that might give them something really cool, or might give them something useless. It’s sort of like buying a pack of trading cards in a physical game like Magic the Gathering. With all else equal, it will take the players a lot longer to complete their ambitions when there is an element of luck involved, compared to when they can just buy directly what they want. It is also more fun and engaging.



A third big trend is the rising importance of a number of social features. Broadly speaking, the more space you give to player interaction, the better your game will do. User generated content, trading resources between players, stealing said resources, helping clan members out, seeing others’ progression, and player-vs-player (PvP) battles. All of these will help your game. And yes, synchronous PvP is a trend, and according to the data, I might have been wrong in criticising it as a hype wave a few weeks back.


A forth category that sticks out for me is slightly surprising. It is that part of the gameplay is automated, or can be automated. As an example, think of the battles in Game of War. You don’t really do anything as a player in the battle itself. It just happens, and you’re told the result. In some games where the player actually plays the battles, they are also given the option of skipping this gameplay and letting the computer figure out what happened. My interpretation is that long-term, it is the meta game that keeps players retained and spending in the game. The core game might by then become repetitive and boring. Hence it can be automated to let the players concentrate on the progression.


There you have it: the broad recipe for success on the App Store today. Let’s recap:

  • Build a huge in-game economy with some random elements (gacha).
  • Give it meaning by having as much player-to-player interaction as possible.
  • Automate any section of the core game that can get boring in the long run, and let your players focus on their progression.
  • If you can, brand it with something popular and release it through a successful publisher.


That shouldn’t bee too hard, should it?

Actually, I think that the data is slightly over-stating how complex successful games need to be. You see, a successful game will get a team to maintain it, and will thus become larger and more complex over time. The causation thus goes both ways: larger games become more successful, but more successful games also become larger over time.


Of course, this is all just my reading of the data, where I group together several of GameRefinery’s features into four broad trends. You should go have a look for yourself to see what you can take away from their analyses.

How to choose who your players are

Make games for players who have their own credit cards!

You should not choose who your players are. If someone you thought would never like your game turns out to love it, be happy and try your very best to make them happy. However, it is a good idea to have a customer in mind when you start developing your game. And picking yourself might not be the best answer. The developers of Sunset even said that “whatever we enjoy is never, ever, what the gaming masses enjoy.”

Most game devs are from a subset of the population. We like certain things. If everyone builds games for themselves, 5% of the population ends up with an oversupply of games tailored for their tastes, while 95% of the population will have no games at all to suit their preferences. Even if the typical game developer is also a heavy consumer of games, we cannot all just be building games for ourselves.

Another common misunderstanding, at least among the general population, is that games, and mobile games in particular, are made for kids. Looking at the early App Store success stories – and some of the current ones – you might very well get that impression. They have very cute graphics with garish basic colours. Surely, they are made with kids in mind?

Let me tell you that they are not. We’ve made that mistake, and advice you to learn from our mistake. If you want to earn a living from a game, please make sure that your customers have their own credit cards. If your main target group is too young for that, you will earn just about nothing from them.

You see, if a kid wants to spend in games, they will need to ask their parents to do it for them. By the time the kids explain it to their parents, it really does not matter anymore how great a value you have constructed around your In App Purchase (IAP). All the parents will hear is that their children want to spend a few dollars on something completely useless in a garish phone game.

On the other hand, if you get the parents themselves hooked on your game, we’re in a completely different place. Now, they really want to achieve that cool thing your game shows them. And since they have a little money, but are pressed for time, it suddenly makes complete sense to spend only the equivalent of a cup of coffee to jump ahead a bit in the game!


So, where should you start when deciding who to build your game for? There are a few deciding factors:

your team’s skills and interests. Yes, this does play a role, but it’s not the only factor you should take into account.

your existing fan base, if you have one. We’ve learned the hard way that some cross promotions work, while others are completely useless. If you jump too far from one customer group to another, you will have to either partner up with another company who already has access to those customers – or spend quite a bit on User Acquisitions (UA) to get a foothold.

competition already in the market. It might not be a good idea to go head to head against King or Supercell. Just saying…

player types and demographics. The standard way of grouping players is the Bartle model that divides players into four groups: Achievers, Killers, Socializers and Explorers.

It’s useful, but also limited. Dr. Bartle originally did this grouping based on how players behaved in one particular online game. Which means that it should be based the mother of all skewed sampling methods. I, personally, would probably never have played that game (a MUD, which is an exceedingly nerdy all-text adventure), and thus I, and people like me, would not have been part of the sample when the model was constructed. Dr Bartle himself has said that his model does not apply to all games:–gamedev-4173

For most mobile games, we can do better than Bartle’s basic MUD-based model. Actually, the University of Turku, who is just next to us, has recently done research on how people play games. Their research covers the whole population, rather than only people interested in specific online games.

With a sample of 3400 people (general population, rather than just self-identified gamers), they were looking into what kinds of game mechanics people prefer to play, and which ones go well together. After running the answers through some statistics, people seemed to group into 5 categories:

  • assault (killing, destroying, stealing, sneaking etc),
  • manage (developing cities, managing resources, directing troops, manufacturing vehicles etc),
  • journey (collecting rare items, developing character’s skills and abilities, exploring the story and the gameworld etc),
  • coordinate (jumping on platforms, staying in the rhythm, match3 etc),
  • care (kissing, hugging, having sex, taking care of pets etc)


The study is not published yet, but I’ll let you know when you can get the details of it. (And, yes, I realize that this is not a huge way off the 4 Bartle types.)
One last tip: a few raving fans (and a bunch of haters) are better than merely OK for everyone. Remember that it’s the superfans that pay your salary. Just Google the most disliked YouTube video ever if you want proof. It’s by Justin Bieber. I hear he’s doing alright financially.