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August 21, 2023

8 Design Tips to Drive Retention & Monetization

The ultimate goal of a mobile game is to drive user retention and monetization as high as possible.  Achieving this goal results in all the hard work involved in the game’s development paying off.  Knowing the ins and outs of monetization & retention strategies before you start developing your game can save you time, effort and rework.  Here are 8 tips to get you well on your way to mobile game success!  

1. Encourage breaks

As counter intuitive as it may seem to design game play to encourage your players to stop playing your game after a certain amount of time, getting players to put the game down is critical to the long-term health and size of your player base.  Frequent breaks encourage long-term retention, give justification to push notifications, discourages burn-out, and fosters habit formation for your game.

The main goal of a game designer is to create an engaging experience that players do not want to put down. We work diligently to ensure that each gameplay loop is as enjoyable as possible. When we are successful, it is easy for a player to slip into the zone and spend hours at a time enjoying the fruits of our labors. That can be a double-edged sword for freemium games. If a player binge plays your game, he or she will inevitably become burned out, regardless of how good it is. In the short run, you’ll see incredible engagement from users. Unfortunately, as more of your players sink many hours into a single sitting or simply reach the end of the content that is created for them, they’ll probably just stop playing.

Many games implement ‘stamina’ systems to encourage players to take a break. The players are allowed a limited number of tries or lives which refresh after a period of real-world time. Stamina systems work especially well for puzzle games, as they give players time to cool off and come back to the content with a fresh set of eyes.

Similar to the stamina system is the ‘drip’ economy system. One type of important currency is limited for players and provided to them at set intervals. They will need to wait until they have enough of this drip currency before they can take any actions in the game. This gives players something to look forward to, so long as you make sure to make the intervals long enough. Players should be encouraged to take a break instead of staring at the screen until they receive the drip currency.

Other methods to encourage breaks include:

• ‘well rested’ bonuses for games with RPG stylings

• daily bonuses for logging in at least once a day

• weekly bonuses for logging in at least once a day for a straight week

• ‘passive gameplay’ where aspects of the game can continue without direct player interaction.

2. Design with Intent

While designing your game, it is important to keep the game’s economy in mind. Strategies for monetizing and retaining player-ship should not be an afterthought in the design process. When pitching the game and building the prototype, write down which mechanics present in your game are most likely to work well with a virtual economy.

Life systems, character or item upgrades, consumables and modular art assets are all going to be present in your games. If you and your team keep this in mind when coding and constructing the game, it could save days of time reworking systems to integrate them in a belated attempt at finding a way to turn a profit. If you fail to plan, you’ve planned to fail.  

3. Appeal to the collector in all of us

People like to own things. They like to collect and arrange them, trade them, and examine them. Letting your players accomplish this in your game is a time-tested way of driving retention. When a player has a collection of virtual things, they will be less likely to abandon them. This is especially true if they had to work hard to unlock those items in the first place!

Consider adding a gallery or trophy system to your game. Achievements and trophies go a long way in keeping players coming back. What starts as a player looking at his or her achievements becomes ‘Hey, I might as well play another round since it’s open’ and just like that, you’ve extended the life and increased the value of your game.

Trading cards and ‘gacha’ mechanics in games work the same way, with the added benefit of trying to specifically collect certain cards or characters within a set. Allowing players to trade in a virtual market for the pieces they want is an incredible improvement for engagement. When implementing gacha mechanics, one must be  wary of creating a situation in which scammers could take advantage of your players.  

Skins and different UI color palettes are also an easily implemented option as players love customizability and personalization. Unlocking different user icons or flairs that they can show off to their friends or other players is yet another set of fun things for them to collect. When a player collects all of the different cosmetics, you can allow them to purchase a cosmetic that lets them wear a random item from their owned collection every time they play. This will remind them of the items in their collection that might be collecting dust.

4. Never limit user spending

If a player wants to spend money on your game, the last thing you should do is stop them. Always have something for the high rollers to spend their money on. Also important is to keep a few top shelf items in view to entice people who are on the fence to make a purchase.

If you have a leveling system, add a ‘prestige’ mode. This will allow players at the top to choose to drop back to the beginning of the game and play through it again with a significant boost to their power or with additional abilities. Let them do this as many times as they would like so they can achieve as high of a level as they feel like spending or playing their way toward.

If you have consumables, try to avoid putting a cap onto how many a user can own or how many they can purchase at one time. Use a slider or an input field for the number of purchases on bundles to save them the hassle of having to repeatedly tap the purchase button. Make it as easy and simple as possible to spend money to buy the things they want to buy.

5. Balance your taps and sinks

A tap is any source of virtual currency a player can access through playing the game while a sink is anything a player can spend that currency on.

Having trillions of coins and barely scraping by with a few coins are two sides of the same frustration for players. Players will complain about not being able to buy anything with their wealth. If you notice that players are stockpiling coins or haven’t been able to afford many upgrades or consumables with what they’ve earned from games alone, you definitely have a problem with your taps and sinks.

Calculate how much currency your players are earning from each round of play, level completed or other metric. You can then determine how many games you want it to take for your players to earn things. Learn to value your items in the shop based on how many standard games it would take a player to unlock that item. Consider it as a way of measuring how long you want players to spend before being able to purchase items. Remember that late game items or perks should be more expensive than early game ones. Make sure that the late game taps are ramped up equally to match.

When a player purchases currency, consider how much time they are purchasing by doing so. How much time and effort should this action save the player? How much is fair to them?

Growth of your taps and sinks should avoid being linear. By using a quadratic growth curve, you can exaggerate the differences between a new player and a veteran player. This provides new players with a goal and reminds the veteran player how far he or she has come.

6. Shift perspective on targeted video monetization

Try not to make players feel like they are being punished by watching the ads in your game. If you can avoid pressuring players to watch long videos that interrupt the flow of your game, do so! It is frustrating to lose a hard game and then be forced to watch thirty seconds of video before getting another crack at it. As an alternative, consider using video monetization as an optional amplifier with which players choose to engage.

When a player wins a game, give them the option to potentially double their reward after watching a video. Show them how much more they’d get if they decided to watch and let them commit to it. When a player loses a game, allow them to try again if they watch a video. Don’t just start the video without any warning.

By removing the surprise and the association with negativity that comes with video advertising, players will be more willing to sit through your advertisements. This will keep your players from feeling like they’re being nickel and dimed.   A feeling of annoyance is not something you desire when players think about playing your game.

7. Give players a taste of the high life

Free trials of premium content are valuable. Every player should start off with at least a little of your hard currency (purchasable with real world money) in your game. Spending this currency facilitates the player’s understanding of its value. They will ration it out, and eventually when they run out of it, players will feel its absence and potentially become purchasers.

Players should have the option to engage in free three-day trials of your one-time purchasable content. Allow them to experience the game ad-free, for example, so they can compare the experience to the base gameplay.  Weigh the pros and cons of having a player start with the free trials against allowing them to choose when to activate any of these trial periods.

A player who starts with everything will enjoy the game but may find themselves embittered when the trial runs out, having never experienced the game normally. However, a player who starts without the trial period may never want to use it at all because they don’t know what they are missing.

8. Progression, Achievement, and Satisfaction

Arguably the most important thing driving retention in players is a sense of progress. If you can foster a feeling of the player having grown between when they started playing the game and where they are now, you are well on your way to having a game that players will keep playing.

Utilize every system in your game to make this growth visible to the player. If players have an avatar, show them growing in size and complexity. If they have numbers and statistics visible to them, make those numbers grow as they spend time and money.

Collectables, unlockables, customization, perks, boosters, skill trees, level systems, hard modes, prestige modes, etc. all of these are important cornerstones that make players come back. If you play a game once and feel like nothing has changed, by the time you finish, why would you ever want to play it again?

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