Focus on Skill in F2P Games

Apple's Editor's choice this week is CastleStorm - Free to Siege, by Zen Studios and it got me thinking about the evolution of the mobile devices we play on today.  the first year on the App Store look vastly different from what we see today.

Naturally you might say, shit evolve, get on with it - and I will. In a minute. 'Cause while the devices we play on, increasingly enable more and more complex games, what should we really focus on when trying to make a game, players actually want to play - want to spend in? As always, I focus on the making of money, and why some more complex games today fail at doing so, because of just that, Complexity.

I would like to focus and discuss game design choices and their effect on the retention and revenue -When wanting to make players spend in your game, hopefully more than once, why should you focus on skill, and not the complexity of the game?

Before I dive in, I want to explain what I mean by the two expressions, Skill and Complexity. 

Skill in this post, is pretty much what you would expect. Mechanical or mental challenges, being it puzzles, button mashing or swipe-for-your-life mechanics.  

Complexity is a bit more tricky. The depth of the game, so to speak. Being it graphically or multiple types of game play, a game can be more or less complex. Vague explanation, but you hopefully get the point.  

Disclaimer: Social Features are not included in this post. Social features has proven to be one of the best retention and revenue factors, why its affect should be not discarded, but this post rather focuses on the actual game play to spawn that potential revenue and retention - I'll be social later. 

Enough excuses! Let me give you a few examples:

Flappy Bird, Subway Surfers, Tiny Wings and Threes are good examples of a F2P experience with very low complexity; the mechanics are fairly limited and the game sticks to one type of game play. Skill is the crucial factor here, and the reason for these games' success. Common for these games is that the mechanics do not change, though some of them introduce another layer, like mission, the player is still afforded to maintain the same type  of play. The game is limited to it. And yeah yeah, I realize Threes is not F2P, but didn't really feel the need to promote the other, and the price of those specific games, won't have an impact on the retention. 

Naturally, it is a balance. While these game have shown to be a more or less successful, a game should have some complexity to engage players that play the game to have an experience an not just display skills. Telling a story and creating ownership is not to be neglected. This is why we see all of Supercell's games high-five'n each other, at the top of the charts. The diversity in the game play, building, defending and attacking is creating a whole experience, but still focusing on the same gameplay just slightly altered. 

Even a game like Candy Crush manages to do this through various success criteria, being it points, nuts, gel, the game forces the player to change tactics and display skills in a different way, adding that needed portion of complexity. Even the recent Owl levels - complexity. If it was merely a match three survival game, I don't believe that game would have seen as much success, being solely focused on skill.

Last, and somewhat least, is the games that presents too much complexity to the player - and CastleStorm - Free to Siege is a great example. The game uses its tutorial to present 3-4 different game modes, and by the time it is done, the player is not completely sure what this game is about. 

I'm playing a Tower Defense, Angry Birds and Golden Axe at the same time, and none of them are very good. Three wrongs definitely don't make a right. There are a rise in the volume of games that does this. These crossbred games that unfortunately wants to do everything at once. I cannot tell if it is the possibilities then devices enable today or just unfortunate game design - but this is probably why the game is floating around in the mid 200s on the top grossing charts in the U.S. and U.K. (Source: AppAnnie)

You cannot simply make a list of top grossing games' best features, and shove them into one game and expect success. Independent of prior titles. Find the intrinsically fun mechanics in your game and focus on skill and simplifying those mechanics. Then you can use the technical possibilities to show the player the complexity of the game, don't ask them to engage in all of it.  

Developers need to keep in mind, the platform and the audience they are creating games for. You need to explorer the premise of which we play mobile games, and focus on that, when the goal is to increase the retention and revenue, especially long-term. 

A very important point to make is that complexity and skill is very bound by time. So don't look at Clash of Clans' level of skill and complexity and go; "If I just make this twice as fast, then I have a game twice as good." No! Wash those dollar signs out of your eyes and sit down - you're missing the point completely. 

The devices we make are increasing exponentially in power, but maybe the games we play don't need to be. So hold off on making that MMO-FPS-JRPG. Just for a little while, or you will be robbin' yourself of a whole lot-a-time and money.

When Difficulty ruins the Revenue

It is safe to say that sometimes, people design games that are too darn difficult. This is, as you well know, often times a combination of two things. The game was designed by people, who are well-familiar with the type of game, they are designing. Furthermore they are rather biased by their past experiences or/and testing the game was not done on a representative target group.

If people cannot progress in your game, they are probably not going to cough up to have fun, and if the game is too difficult to have fun in, the number of DAU will likely decline rather fast. This doesn't apply to all games though. 

This is all good and obvious, but what I want to focus on is actually games that looses revenue because of the opposite; the difficulty being too low. There are several examples of this on the app store, but lets take a recent one and look at what specifically makes that game too easy to revenue.

Dwarven Den from Backflip Studios, is the editor's choice this week, the first week of may 2014, and I'd like to say, right off the bat this is a really good F2P title. Interesting gameplay, worth at least spending a couple of hours on.  

To understand the overall point, the various economies of Dwarven Den needs to be understood. The main mechanic in Dwarven Den is mining blocks. The player has limited moves to mine embodied through energy (red crystals) and uses a portion of energy each time a block is mined. The player faints if energy reaches zero. easy enough. 

Based on the player's progressively improved equipment, a starting energy is provided and crystals can be mined to replenish some of the energy spend, with no maximum limit. Besides the energy, the player can opt to use 'tech', similar to mana, to use abilities that helps the player solve the puzzles, either through guiding towards wanted objectives or clearly the path with bombs, saving the player some energy. Ok ok, you get it. Here comes the Crimes. 

Dwarven Den plays on the very effective life economy, with 3 lives to start with and a 30min downtime on each life. Very standard. Very good. But the problem occurs before the economy is even in play, because most player won't loose a life for a very long time. The game simply gives the player too much energy, through items and pick-ups in-game. 

The game was launched with 100 levels - which granted, is a fair amount - but given that gameplay sessions of each levels not being based on time, but rather actions, like moves in a match three, levels can be fairly long. Let me paint you a F2P picture.

I lost my first life on the 14th level. This was about an hour into the gameplay. An hour might seem long to get through 13 levels, but Dwarven Den offers, the selling of inferior equipment, forging of new, and buying better items for hard currency, which also inhaled some of my time in the game. While 1 hour into the initial session might seem rather ok in terms of monetization, the next lost life came all too late after that. One might argue, had I lost all lives within the next 29:48 minutes after the screenshot above, I might have been willing to pay to proceed, as the player at this point is fairly engaged. but..

I didn't loose another life until the 29th level - where I lost all three lives. Simple calculation, taking progressively larger puzzles into account we are some 3 hours into Dwarven Den by now, a session split in two I might add. 

Now, you might intuitively think that prior experience and my background plays a significant part in my level-to-life-loosing ratio, and surely it does. But going through the first twenty levels again, the challenges presented are not very difficult to overcome. 

Gameplay-vise, Dwarven Den does not do anything wrong. The player is presented with a variety of interesting choices to choose his/her own path, selling, forging and purchasing items to improve the player's chances of success. In addition, the feeling of progression is very well balanced in the game, forging a new pick axe and testing it out, presents intrinsically fun mechanics, repeatedly reengaging the player. 

Unfortunately, looking the monetization and the revenue the game generates, Dwarven Den does not manage to kick the players out of the game, leaving them lusting for more. The implemented timegate fails. Surely Dwarven Den will generate revenue, because it is a good F2P experience. The essential crime committed is that, Dwarven Den simply isn't hard enough, to reach that potential revenue through monetization and difficulty walking hand in hand. 

This is probably the reason why Dwarven Den has yet to break into the top 100 Grossing in the U.S. and UK.

There are many games like this! The important thing to take away from this, is that the design of the monetization, should not only synergize with the mechanic and the gameplay loop, but also make sure that the difficulty is balanced, to match the monetization. Otherwise you are robbing yourself of good revenue. 

Forcing the Hard Currency #2

In the first part of this series we looked at some examples of games who afford the spending of hard currency in their attempt to engage players. In this second part, I'll take a look at the other side, games that do not push it enough. If you haven't read the first part, I suggest you jump over to and have a go at that one.

Anyway, Trials Frontier by Ubisoft, editor's choice mid april 2014, is a great example of an initial lack of aggression when trying to afford the use of hard currency. But first things first though.

Trials Frontier is a mission-based Dirt-bike Stunt game with a odd though interesting cocktail of themes mixed together. The Death-Race/gunslinging/hillbilly-themed game is fairly late to introduce the two currencies is has, namely Coins and Gems. After a few tutorial levels and missions, coins are introduced as the currency of which of you'll need to upgrade your dirt-bike. Only after +30min of gameplay is the hard currency introduced - and while I could go on and on about how you shouldn't hide your currencies from the player, let's move on and have a look at why player actually don't need to purchase.

Some of the top grossing games out there focus on fairly short game loops, possibly enabling that time gate rather quick, e.g. 5 lives can quickly be used in Candy Crush Saga. (screw you level 181) But with a gameplay that is story-driven and mission based, Trials Frontier do not allow the player to experience the time gate, that would get people to spend to keep completing missions. Here is a few reasons why this happens in Trials Frontier.

The life economy is fuel in Trials Frontier. The player uses 5 points of fuel to 'pay' for every run, but until about level 6 (a couple of hours into the game) the player will automatically level up from the 5-6 missions given on each level with a progressively increasing reward both in XP and Currency. Leveling up means the player will receive a full gas tank, replenishing the player's 'lives'.

The missions given are easily completed, because of two major factors. Crashing the bike has very little consequence in relation to the missions. The player rarely, need to actually do something in the level to complete the underlying mission - and even in those cases the player is able to retry the level, if not completed, without spending more fuel.

The two currencies in the game sadly end up being nullifying as a result of the player not needing a faster bike. The game continuously tells you that you cannot beat your enemy, the Gary of Trials Frontier. Furthermore, the game offers not further reward for achieving '3 stars' (Gold Medal), so why should the player bother spending extra fuel, when story-wise, nothing is gained?

These are some of the reasons why Trials Frontier isn't grossing as well as one might would have expected, just looking at the gameplay, the visuals and the story. (source:

The game that seemingly did itself a disservice by being too generous and implementing such unaggressive monetization, flips the coins around level 7 and introduces a rather unflattering mechanic that might increase the revenue but surely ruins the gameplay. Allow me to explain.

The traditional time of conversion lies around *dinging* level 7 and about that time the rather misplaced wheel of fortune introduces its extra spin, like most of us know from Supercell's Hay Day and Zynga's Farmville 2. The funny thing is that a fair amount of the mission at this point requires the player the hit a specific price on the wheel of fortune in order to complete the Quest. At this point, the player is randomly completing mission, with a hard currency insurance. So we want from generous to pretty transparent Casino mechanics. Normally you see games enabling players to skip missions if they, for whatever reason, do not want to bother with that mission.

This feeling is further enhanced when the player realizes that the actually gameplay, riding the bike, and the level the player is led to, in order to complete a mission, has no point at all. In terms of progression, the gameplay, putting it rough, might as well be a match three at this point.

Essentially what Trials Frontier lacks is synergy. Synergy between the monetization and the game design. Unlike the prior examples Trials Frontier starts out by neglecting currencies as an element of their game, while after a point, goes full speed ahead and through a very transparent business model tries to 'force' the use of hard currency. This game has a lot of potential, bot stumbles in their attempt to implement an effective way to ensure revenue. You cannot make Progression P2W if there is a random factor in there. People need to know where their money is going. People aren't playing the roulette to see the ball spin, they play to win. 

Forcing the Hard Currency!

Depending on the game, a very closely calculated time in the gameplay comes, when the give aways stop. No more free Diamonds for you Sir! The cost of objectives are getting too high to allow the player to keep spending hard currency without having to purchase any through IAP. 

Letting a player dodge the time gate in the first few instances of the game are very deliberate, trying to engage the player to a level where they feel a combination of ownership and a good portion time invested, for that specific game. But when it ends, players are forced to invest in hard currency to keep avoiding the time gate, keep playing (...and 'have fun') 

The recipe is fairly clear. Over the last few years, games have 'perfected' the way the get the player engaged/addicted, which is why, independent of theme, you'll sometime feel like you've played the game before. But there are those who swing and miss.

Lets look at some examples where games, in their attempt to get the player used to spending the hard currency, forces it too much. In some of the games it is just entertaining to call their bluff and sometimes, the game potentially looses players and revenue instead.

An example could be what i'd like to call 'plot-driven encouragement', to use hard currency like you see in Clash of Clans.

"Quickly, the bad guys are approaching. We need some type of defensive structure to hold them back"

You build a cannon to protect yourself, and you see that the structure will be about a minute under way. But the 'helper' pops up and tells you to stop being so stingy, with the 500 free Gems the game provide you with, a few minutes ago. For the small price of one gem, that minute of building time will go away, and you'll be ready for the attack in time. I would bet close to 100% of players listen to the generous and helpful lady and spend the one gem.


What happens if I refuse? What if I just wait the full minute and save the gem for later? Yep, you guessed it, absolutely nothing happens. The choice to decline the speed-up has no consequences, except waiting the minute. I'm tempted to say, of course nothing happens. why? Because the game would never risk introducing consequences this early in the game. 

Say the cannon did not complete in time, the women and children were stolen, and the town was burned to the ground - and the player was asked to start over? naaah, right? Their bluff was called, and I don't feel cheated, because the cost was so low. So this actually ends up being something that the player can faintly laugh about and move on - waiting the minute or not.

Lesser games unfortunately didn't succeed in doing so. Lets have a look at Social Point's 'Monster Legends Mobile'.

The creators of Dragon City, have made what feels like a sequel, and why not? Dragon City had huge success. But in Monster Legends Mobile, they took a few things for granted. An example of this is the first time the player is asked, during the tutorial, to hatch a Dragon Egg. The screen below appears. 

Finishing the hatching process can be instantly completed for the small fee of one gem (hard currency) - but it will be completed in 4 sec if the player decides to wait. or will it? My thought process was this; (based on the prior experience from games like Clash of Clan) 

The hard currency can often times strategically be used more efficient than what the game suggest. This is some hardcore casual gaming, i know. But looking at my provided gem stash in Monsters Legends at this point is only 5 gems.

Spending 20% of my hard currency or waiting 4 seconds. Not the hardest choice I have had to make, so I'll just wait the 4 seconds and claim my reward. After a few seconds of waiting, the player will notice that the 4 seconds countdown is not a countdown. It does not change. Then it hits you. I have to use the hard currency. 

Honestly? This is just terrible game design, user interface design and user experience. I have no problem with the game trying to force the spending of hard currency on me, and paying a single gem for the hatching of a fire-breathing dragon sounds pretty damn cheap, but this game is simulating a choice that I don't have. 

Let me quickly save 
your game design Social Point.

The way Monsters Legends Mobile expect user behavior, end up having a very negative effect for players that realize this, myself included.  This is of course a very simple example where, again, most players won't even realize is there, because they just follow the orders of the orange arrow. Sloppy game design that just rides the wave of 'what everyone else did', but not balancing the cost vs. the waiting time. 

Implementing this type of affordance of the use of hard currency can quickly backfire, and players will much rather be forced to spend hard currency than being fool into thinking they are making a choice. Stop lying to the players, and just be honest about your agenda and.. 

be careful with the choices, or non-choices, you present to your player. You might end up robbing yourself.

There are loads of examples of this type of game design, where the monetization was too much in focus. Making it big in the world of F2P games requires the game design and the monetization to co-exist and help each other - you can't focus too much on one or the other.

Blizzard's Hearthstone - the Special Treatment.

Yesterday, wednesday April 16th, the highly anticipated card game based on Blizzard's Warcraft universe, was released on the AppStore. Highly anticipated because the game has been in the media for some time now because of its fairly long official beta, both closed and open - and its the first game Blizzard take to the iOS devices.

Hearthstone has had a remarkable first 24 hours on the App Store with a position in the top 40 top grossing in the U.S. - that is very impressive (source: AppAnnie) I would not be surprised to see Hearthstone going toe to toe with Supercell's Boom Beach within a few days.

It is a well-known fact that Apple claims 30% of every purchase done, why one would think that Apple would be interested in promoting the games/apps that most likely will revenue like crazy. With the huge IP in Blizzard's Warcraft, this is an example of a game that Apple is already making a significant profit from. But while a large percentage of the future players and contributors to Blizzard's Hearthstone most likely will find there own way into the game and the IAP, should apple give them special treatment?

Well, they did. Notice the inverted colors of the pop-up window when looking up Hearthstone on the AppStore, standing out and matching the feel of the game, a whole lot better than the trivial blue and white combination. Is this fair to the rest of the apps on the AppStore?

No one can argue against Hearthstone going to be one of the heavy hitters on the AppStore, revenue-vise - and while this special treatment isn't a huge crime, and probably will not lower the revenue of others - it still rises the question how others are suppose to promote and advocate for their game, when at the end of the day, the big boss makes the rules. It really made me think of this meme. 

What do you think? 
Is this fair? Do you care?

The Inflation of Soft Currency

Multiple currencies have been the norm for some time now, and having both soft and hard currencies is to address two essential but competing needs. Player satisfaction and enabling a reasonable monetization. The Soft currency often times tie the idea of currency to the theme of the game, being it gold, wood, stone, or food, and throughout the game provides a feeling of progression and increased status.

subway surfers launched with only one currency 

With the popularization of strategy/builder games around mid 2012 centered around a timegate, soft and hard currencies were now a given in almost all top grossing games. Allowing people to avoid the timegate at the cost of hard currency was a very effective way to monetize and developers started to pick up on that, and naturally tried to squeeze the lemon. Since players were so positive to the idea of spending money on skipping the waiting time, games tried to explore other areas where players would be interested to spend money in return of a continued gameplay or getting that slight advantage.

A very common example of this is the ability to purchase soft currency with hard currency. Most times the game allows the player to refill the soft currency storage by 10% - 50% - 100% for an amount of hard currency equal to the actually amount of e.g. gold purchased. With this tendency games allowed not only skipping the waiting time but also avoid the grind for the soft currency, or the despair when only needing a small amount for the next upgrade.

Games centered around a timegate now enabled opportunities to spend hard currency and made for a constant monetization flow and turned every upgrade into a two-step purchased. A player spends hard currency to afford an upgrade providing the player with a very strong sense of progression and increased status through merely an 'in-game' purchase, step one. Afterwards the player need to wait X amount of time for the upgrade to be done, and with an investment already made, spending that extra hard currency to finish the upgrade right away isn't hat far away. Looking through the critics of F2P being solely P2W, this argument is often one of those that pop up - purchasing soft currency for hard currency. Here are some of the top grossing games that allow players to purchase soft currency for hard currency. 

Samurai Siege, Monsters Legacy, Monster Legends, Dragons of Atlantis, Royal Revolt 2, Dungeon Keeper, Clash of Clans, Hay Day, Crime City, Modern War, Dragon City, Castle Story, Simpsons: Tapped Out, Nimble Quest, Mega Run, Minion Rush, The Hobbit: Kingdom of Middle-earth, Knights & Dragons, Kingdoms of Camelot,  
who am I kidding, every top grossing game with a soft and hard currency does this. 

Often times the game provides the player with a significant amount of hard currency to begin with, and that it is up to the player where these are spend, being it to skip time, enabling multiple actions or spending it on soft currency. More and more games pushes the 'time of conversion' to ensure that the player is indeed engaged with the game before shutting of the free flow of hard currency through quests and reward for reaching milestones in the game. The problem that occurs when the 'time of conversion' is pushed to a later stage in the game; 

the inflation of the Soft Currency. 

Players are provided with more and more complimentary hard currency to reassure the player that this specific games is generous and does not have its hands in your pocket. But what they are really doing is letting the players sink even further in, so that they'll see how entertaining this game is and so they'll be much more likely the punch in that apple-id password when the time of conversion kicks in. 

The increased amount of free hard currency that can be spend refilling the soft currency storage. Furthermore, newer strategy and builders focus less and less on the benefits of upgrading the [game's gold mine equivalent] making sure that players do not log in to a fortune after a longer break. There are loads of examples were a full gold supply of gold, collected over several hours is only around 50% of what the player can collect through raids and quests that take no more than two minutes.
Instead, the player's main source of soft currencies are provided through these raid, event, quest and rewards making sure the timegate is working as intended and the ecosystem in the game is in balance, no matter how long a player is disconnected. 

This could ultimately result in a nullification of the soft currency, leaving it only relevant to tie the currencies to the theme of the game. But I've not naive, this won't happen, but it would be interesting to see if we at some point see a merger of the soft and hard currencies we know today. The classic soft currency is slowly be reiterated or even phased out, and the hard currency is interestingly beginning to look more and more like a soft currency.

Games have more and more of what seems to be random triggered events where the player is awarded hard currency, like a 'thanks for playing' reward. A chest here, a toolbox there, and a daily happy hour and spin of the wheel of fortune are subtle event meant to raise the retention of the players, but if this get more and more systematic, something the player should count on happening, and the reward is hard currency, doesn't that resemble the automated grind for soft currency that we see today.

I believe that this will balance out on its own and games will return to the norm we know today. If the theme-based soft currency disappears, it won't take long before people realize that the diamonds and the rubies looks a lot like real money and then this magic circle that is the game starts to look a lot like a casino - with no check out. 

What do you think will happen?

Top Push Notifications Worst Practices Part #1

Any ol' app will ping you the message of the question whether or not that specific app should be allowed to push notifications at you, and what a great service to let the player choose. Push notifications are a very effective tool. Did you know Clash of Clans players around the world log into Clash of Clans 10 times a day, on average.

Yep, 10 times a day they opt to log into the game because an army is done, a building has finished building or a similar event has happened - and while I do believe there actually are people who write down a Clash of Clans schedule to optimize their play, I wouldn't expect this from most players. So why do they 'remember' to log in ~10 times a day. You've guessed it. The game reminds them. Push Notifications are a brilliant and free marketing tool that surely will raise you're revenue significantly - if done right. But what is right and what is wrong?Most companies are not willing to show their marketing strategies which this very heavily falls under, but @David Hom linked me this article written a few months ago; PlayHaven's "Top 5 Push Notification Best Practices". Look it up, it is actually quite informative. Maybe even more than what you are about to read. But isn't everyone more interested in seeing people fail than read about how to win? 
We learn from the mistakes of others right? 

Inspired by this I wanted to do my own piece on Worst Practices for push notifications. 'Cause while they can be very effective marketing tools, they can surely work against the game if done poorly. Let's see how that may look.

Too many Notifications
Dragon City creators, Social Point, recently released a similar type breeding game called Monster Legends, which is quiet popular. Here is one of the reasons why they only managed to breach the Top 60 Grossing in the U.S. once during its Lifetime.

Two Notifications every fourth hour, resulting in six notifications while I was asleep. The amount of notifications is one thing, it being the same two every fourth hour is another. There is very little effect in constant reminding the player that my food is ready to collect, it does not make for a higher retention of DAU.


Another thing about these notifications leads on to the second of the worst practices in push notifications.

Lying, Begging, Threatening.
The funny thing about the notifications above is that I had no eggs cracking. The game was lying to my face to get me back into the game. A terrible feeling of disappointment and despair when you slide open that game, and the reward promised to you by the video game is a lie.

Ofcourse I'm not one to hold a grudge against petite lies like these, so I do what most players would do. Never open the game again. Here we went from potential rise in revenue to lost costumer - and this would have happened many times if push notifications with an untrue content would annoy you every fourth hour.

The point is that the push notifications, like any other marketing tools need to show the company, in this case the game, in a positive light. Engagement is not evoked through pity or threat, much like you wouldn't respond well if e.g. a super market marketed itself through these means.

Monsters Legends is not the only example though. I won't go into too much detail, but rather let you decide if you think the following push notifications is Lying, Begging or Threatening.

All of the games mentioned here have at some point or are still very popular games, and among some of the heavy hitters when it comes to grossing apps. Obviously this means that failing your push notification won't mean no revenue - but think of a game that you've played where the push notifications really made sense. Were most of them event-based? Push notifications like 'Your Corn is Ready to be Harvested' or 'Your Troops are ready' are much more acceptable because they are generated through you, the player's, actions in the game. So focus on those. Nail the event-based and if possible stick to just that - and if you feel like you need more - don't just generate more push notifications - generate more events. 

What is your experience with poorly managed Push Notifications? Comment below or hint me some must play games with horrible PN.