Deconstructing Fire Emblem Heroes

Nintendo is the one bright light in the mobile games industry. Finally entering the fray after years of resisting the trend, since last summer Nintendo has launched 3 top grossing titles: Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Nintendo is doing what no other free-to-play developer has done. They’ve broken into a market that many have long assumed to be completely locked up.

But each release has been marked with controversy. Pokemon GO wasn’t developed by Nintendo, and Nintendo only sees a fraction of the profits. Super Mario Run was met with mediocre reviews, and many free-to-play veterans questioned whether the “Free-to-Start” model was the effective system for driving the most revenue and enjoyment from the product. Despite this controversy, Pokemon Go generated revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2016. Super Mario Run has generated $53M, and converts 5% of its player base. No matter your opinions on their approach, these are very impressive numbers.


Fire Emblem Heroes is the first game in the series that feels closest to how free-to-play games on mobile have traditionally been built. It is obvious that this game was built closely with DeNA. This game shares a lot from other DeNA products and many other Japanese F2P mobile RPGs.

So far the reviews are positive for the game, from critics, players and business analysts alike. The game has already grossed more then $5M, a week after launch  and has reached near Top 10 grossing in the US, and is the #2 Top Grossing game in Japan. No doubt it will be another major success for Nintendo.

Full disclosure: I am a massive Nintendo fan boy. Just like most game developers in the industry, I grew up playing Nintendo. I’ve owned every Nintendo console since the NES and have pre-ordered the Switch just to play Zelda on launch day. I am cheering for Nintendo with every release they do on mobile. I sincerely hope that Nintendo continues to operate as the shining star in the industry as a company that continues to deliver incredibly fun, approachable games for the next decades to come.

That being said, I’ve now played Fire Emblem Heroes since its launch, and despite all the praise it’s gotten since launch there’s noticeable improvements that Nintendo will need to make to ensure the game lasts for the long term.

Let’s first take a look at what they did right: How the core of the game is designed.

The Core Loop : Tried & True


The Core Loop of Fire Emblem Heroes is a proven one. Players battle, to gain rewards, to upgrade & collect more heroes. Their upgraded heroes allow them access to more challenging battles which give better and better rewards.

For this game to retain and monetize at its best, the player must always have a desire to constantly collect new heroes, and upgrade as many as possible to their maximum level.

The Gacha

To collect these heroes, you have to use the gacha-based random drop system. Players collect orbs through single player campaigns to eventually start a summon. These summons feel great. Getting a famous character is rewarded with a unique animation that really captivates the feeling of getting something unique & special (Seen below). Nintendo created a great feeling gacha flow.


Summons initially cost 5 orbs. Upon summoning, the player is presented with 5 options, colour coded. As you can see with the image below, the player has 1 red, 1 blue, and 3 grey options. This colour code is coordinated with the types of units the player uses in the core battle.


So the player can be strategic about choosing which colour they want. If they want a player that is of the red type, they can focus their summons on red gachas. Upon summoning, the player is presented with a character, ranging from 1 to 5 stars, depending on how lucky they are.

But Nintendo also offers another aspect to summoning. Summoning gets less expensive the more you summon from the same group. See the above image. After being presented with 5 coloured stones, the 1st selection costs 5 orbs, 2nd costs 4, 3rd costs 4, etc.  So to save substantial orbs players opt-in to grinding for more. To save 5 orbs for every 5 characters you summon, you need 20 orbs initially. An interesting design decision that gives players an extra way to optimize their grind.

Each day players are in the relentless pursuit of collecting orbs so they can summon their favourite characters from the series. Player can gather orbs from regular play. Each time they complete a single player mission, they are rewarded with a single orb. Since the difficulty of the single player missions increases quickly, the rate at which players can collect orbs slows quickly. The game shifts from quick progress to having to train your heroes often to get orbs.

This is a tried and true method of free to play monetization design. Pace the free collection of characters down to a pace that players start to want to spend in order to speed their progress back up again.

The Battle : Simple, Strategic & Stats Driven

What I believe drove the praise of this game was the core battle system. Nintendo managed to take a genre that many have attempted, and make it more mobile friendly than any other turn based strategy game that I’ve played on mobile.

The game’s orientation is in portrait, and the key interaction is just dragging and dropping your unit around the field. It feels immediately intuitive, easy to play while on the go, and I rarely make a misstep with my commands.

image05On top of a core interaction that is accessible, they managed to make the entire experience of completing a battle fit into the Starbucks test . You can complete a regular battle in roughly 40 seconds, a more strategically demanding battle in easily less than 3 minutes.

The battles are usually 4 units vs 4 opposing units, really cutting down on the amount of moves you need to make per battle. Because each map is fairly small, it usually doesn’t take very long for the main action to start. Ultimately these short, punchy battles make for a great “just one more battle!” feeling.

The Strategy

All this being said : simple interaction, small maps, small armies — this game has strategic depth. Based on the fire emblem battle systems that were designed back in 1990, Intelligent Systems (the game developer who makes the Fire Emblem series) has perfected this system over the years. Fire Emblem have been always known for their simplicity & depth. Working very well on mobile through the Gameboy Advance, DS, and 3DS years with stylus touch controls.

The battle system starts with an easy to understand rock – paper – scissors-like system. With fire emblem, its red beating green, green beating blue, blue beating red.


This is easy to understand, and the game gives enough in-game cues when you’re taking advantage of this system. You can expect a 20% boost to your damage when attacking a weaker element, or a 20% reduction when fighting against a stronger element.

From here, the player can start to notice other strategic advantages they can take in battle. Archer & mage units can fire from a distance. Horseback and flying units can move quickly across terrain. Walls & mountains can make being a range unit more advantageous. Units can gain abilities that buff and de-buff other characters. There is a lot of strategic depth here which keeps each battle feeling fresh and collecting heroes relevant.

The Stats


The stats and their impact are all also very easy to understand. Atk is attack damage, which is counter to HP (Hit Points). Spd is speed, which if you have 5 more speed than an opponent, you hit twice. Def is defense, which is subtracted from the opponent’s attack when you are defending. Res is magical resistance, which is similarly subtracted when you are attacked by a magical spell.


Each time a character gains a level they are rewarded with a random selection of increased stats. This allows the actual numbers themselves to stay relatively small and understandable, and means that having two of the same character could mean different stats. Great for collectors and min/maxers.

But if these stats were pure random, you could see how builds could become unpredictable. Because the battle math is so basic (it just uses addition and subtraction), calculations could easily get out of control without Nintendo “guiding” the progress of characters to ensure that the values stay within limits. As such, it is obvious that nintendo has pre-planned the progression of each character from the beginning. While each character can have different stats, they try to stay within a controlled range and by the maximum level each character has the same amount of stat points. So no matter your luck, each character will be equal in theory, but mix/max style players can try to find duplicates of characters to find the optimal build.

But what’s important with the stats is that it supports the core loop. As stated before, the core loop only works if players constantly have pressure to upgrade their characters. This system really puts pressure on the players to level up their units. Being just a few levels under another unit could mean your Defense stat being low and taking a lot of damage. It could mean your Attack stat is just a few points lower than an opponent’s defense stat and thus can’t do any damage.

This system doesn’t leave players with much space to compete at higher levels with their strategic skill alone. They need to level up every character in their team.

Smartly by Nintendo, there is a lot of strategy in choosing who to bring into each battle. You are always given a preview of the opponent’s stat level, the makeup of their team, so you can effectively plan outside the battle who you want to bring.

This level, “Prince of Mystery” has 2 red swordsmen, an archer, and a green mage all at around level 24. I can craft my team around taking advantage of this team’s weaknesses. I can ensure that my team is around level 24 before starting the battle. This feels both strategic & puts more pressure on the core loop: collecting & upgrading a large variety of heroes.

3 Improvements for Nintendo

Overall while the core game and overall progression feel great, after playing for weeks its obvious that Nintendo still needs to fill in some of the cracks to make sure this game can last on the top grossing charts. From playing I noticed 3 issues that Nintendo should consider for their future:

#1 Gacha Drop Tiers & Rates

Nintendo did a lot right with Fire Emblem Heroes’ gacha system. They have over 60 characters in the pool to pull from, adding more every few weeks and each feeling unique and strategic. They paced their orbs so that in the beginning you feel like you’re making quick progress, but as time goes by the pacing slows down substantially.

They’ve also built a system which having a 5 star character means a lot: to upgrade a character from a lower star rating to a higher star rating takes considerable time and effort. So players are more likely to convert chasing after the 5 star character in the gacha than attempt to upgrade them from a lower star level.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-56-pmBut this is where the simplicity of their hero progression system starts to show some issues. To upgrade a 4 star character to 5 star takes 20,000 feathers and 20 badges. To get this type of currency takes weeks of grinding. You can get feathers from competing in the PvP Arena once per week or sending your characters home. But playing for a few weeks I have gained ~4,000 feathers, mostly from sending home 4 star players I didn’t want. To get to 20,000 is a long painful grind.

Players see clearly that to manually increase a single character’s star level is insanely difficult. This system has already seen some backlash from players, enough that Nintendo gifted out 10,000 feathers as part of a social media campaign. So the only effective way to get 5 star heroes means pulling them from the gacha pool — that must be great for monetization right?

That starts to break down when you hear experiences like this:

“…After my first day of play I had assembled a formidable team of five-star heroes, with 12 heroes of varying abilities in reserve…”
– Pocket Gamer Reviews

For myself as well, I have three 5 star heroes on my team, after spending $13 USD and a few days playing the game. I got the three 5 star heroes off of summons I didn’t pay for. I had so many free summons from regular play that it was easy to collect a wide variety of heroes. From these summons, I’ve already got three 5 star characters which helps me steamroll over the single player campaign of this game.

This could just be luck, but it seems to be happening to many players of the game. So I did some calculations:


The drop rate of a 5 star hero is 6%. So every time you spend 20 orbs, you have a 26.6% chance of getting at least one 5 star hero in the pack of 5. After spending 40 orbs, there is a 50% chance you will have at least one 5 star character. Not to mention Nintendo even increases the % chance of getting a 5 star character each time you fail to get one in a summon. Nintendo is specifically designing the gacha around players getting 5 star characters fast.

Getting multiple 5 star characters on your team would be fine if Fire Emblem Heroes had enough pressure built into the core loop around collecting a large variety of heroes, but since the game is so early, this isn’t the case. After you’ve collected four 5 star heroes, you can rip through content and walk away happy from the game. Only the die hard fans — the ones who are here just to collect for the sake of collecting — will engage in the gacha.

5 Gold Stars don’t matter if they happen all the time.

In the effort by Nintendo to make a player friendly feeling gacha, they’ve built a system where 5 star characters are so common that I can reach a optimal team within a week of play.

Compare this to the competition

  • In Clash Royale, it takes months to raise to the arenas necessary to get access to the legendary cards, and from there they drop at such a low percent that it takes months to get the legendary cards levelled up fully
  • In Contest of Champions it takes weeks to collect enough shards for a single 5 star hero crystal that you can redeem in game. 5 star heroes rarely ever drop in crystals collected from regular play.

So for Nintendo, for Fire Emblem to last they have to take a page from Puzzles and Dragons, Brave Frontier and other JRPGs. Introduce more star tiers with increasingly difficult gacha odds. Adjust the balancing for feathers and star progress so that it is feasible to reach a higher tier. From this, a player’s pursuit of the optimal team will take more than a week of play and a small amount of money.

#2 More Interesting Upgrade Path

Layering on top of the issue from the gacha, comes to the Upgrade system. After you’ve gotten the top 5 star character, the effort it takes to build it to its optimal level is too simple and short.

To reach the optimal build of a character:

  • The character must be 5 stars
  • Reach Level 40 by collecting XP or using shards
  • Merging a Duplicate 5 Star for an Enhancement

Each unit has a level cap of 40, which can be reached by collecting enough XP, or spending your crystals and shards. The XP required to level up gets exponentially higher, but for the most part can be completed in less than a week if you’re playing against high enough level opponents.

But to build the absolute best version of a character, you have to take one last step, merge a copy with the same star level.


So to have the highest level 5 star Marth (pictured above), you need two 5 star Marths. This is a very small chance in the Gacha (0.001% per summon), and will obviously take a long long time to do.


However, this gives only +1 level on the character. As pictured above, the character now can have a maximum level of 40+1, rather than 40. This means that the benefit of spending all the time & effort in the gacha to get the duplicate is all for a maximum of +1 to +5 battle stat points. The single level boost is just too low for too much grind.

Compare this to Galaxy of Heroes, Summoner’s War and Heroes Charge. Their upgrade systems have more systems running in parallel and typically have far more requirements to reach the optimal build:


Outlined far more in detail in an older deconstruction, most F2P RPG games have 4 paths to upgrade your character to the maximum. Usually including a random drop gear system at least to make the long path to fully upgrade interesting throughout the development.

The key element that Fire Emblem is missing: If I’m lucky enough to land a 5 star character, this needs to feel like just the beginning. I should want to invest a lot of time to get this hero to their maximum potential.

This is how you ultimately craft strong long term retention in a game which drives long term success on the mobile top grossing charts.

#3 Lack of Content & Social End-Game

Free-to-play, at its foundation, is about retaining players for as long as possible. Long term retention decides your ultimate success, as I’ve spoken about at GDC, and written on this blog.

But just a week after launch, and there are many reports of players reaching the end of content. Many of these players have been moderately engaged and only spent a small amount of money. Below the player spent $40, only on summoning, and reportedly did not even get their final hero team from any of the summons they paid for.


This is a result of generous gacha drops and quick upgrade pathing. Players being able to upgrade and progress through all the content much faster than Nintendo intended.

If Nintendo wants Fire Emblem to continue to deliver million dollar per day revenues for months and years to come, they need to ensure their most engaged players are staying in the game. They can only do that if there is enough content in the game.

The easiest way for a game to lose its audience is for its most engaged players to leave because they feel like they finished all the game had to offer.

Fire Emblem has 9 Chapters + a Prologue containing just under 150 missions. With the pace that fire emblem lets you get through these missions though, these 150 missions, each lasting between 40 seconds and 3 minutes makes for a very fast progressing game.

The side-effects of this fast progression is that Nintendo needed to add very aggressive pacing blocks to their single player campaign. The majority of complaints from players have to do with the stamina cost of levels skyrocketing early. By the mid-game, each battle costs roughly 10 stamina, and your stamina meter remains at 50. With battles being so short and most battles being fairly trivial to win (since you’re grinding), this feels frustrating by the end game. Nintendo had to do this to prevent players from training & beating the campaign missions too early. If they had created enough content however, this wouldn’t be the case. If they added additional modes to the end-game to pressure players into collecting & upgrading more heroes, this wouldn’t be the case.

Comparing this to Galaxy of Heroes, Contest of Champions, Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier is completely different. Each of these games offer more modes, more content, and their pacing is structured around playing rather than waiting. On top of this, these games slowly introduce a more and more engaging social end-game that takes the pressure off of producing more content. This way even if a big spending highly engaged player reaches the end of content early, they are actively engaged in guild wars or reaching the top of a leaderboard.

Fire Emblem heroes has the tools to do this. With the success of Fire Emblem Heroes, they plan to release 2 chapters (10 levels) each month. They plan to introduce a new PvP mode in the near future. They have an arena mode, but it is paced too slowly (3 attempts maximum per day). They can create a guild-based meta-game that drives players to use their friend lists. Adding more additional modes which ask the player to have a larger collection of level up heroes would be the key to driving stronger long term retention.

As it stands, players can progress through content too fast, leaving players with too few reasons to come back to the game.

How Fire Emblem can Last

Overall this game is a massive financial success for Nintendo. Based on the rabid fan base so far, Nintendo has proven that based on the brand loyalty alone their fan base can reach the top of the mobile gaming charts. They have an impressively approachable and addictive core battle that has the strategic depth to last for years.

That being said, Nintendo have an opportunity here not just to make a quick buck off their IP. They have the opportunity to build a long standing success that will pass Super Mario Run in revenue, potentially even Pokemon Go in the future.

For this game to stay on top, Nintendo needs to act quickly to ensure this game can retain its top players.

  1. Add more star tiers to their Gacha pool, so there’s a reason for players to summon new characters for years
  2. Add more scale and depth to their upgrade system, so it takes longer than a week for my top characters to grow to their optimal forms
  3. Add significantly more content to challenge players to collect more heroes and upgrade their team to the highest level.
  4. Work towards a deeper, social end-game which keeps players collaborating and playing for years.

These 4 things are possible within a short amount of time. While the audience is still engaged in the game Nintendo can increase the scale of the systems and add significant content. Galaxy of Heroes and others took months after global launch before they launched a social end-game. Puzzles and Dragons added star tiers long after launch.  Many of the JRPGs in the genre have interesting modes and competitions that push players to collect & upgrade a large set of heroes.

Nintendo has the time & ability to turn Fire Emblem from a million dollar release to a billion dollar mobile hit.

GDC 2017: Evaluating Monetization Early

GDC 2017 is coming up quick. I’m excited to announce that this year I’ll be giving a talk about a topic I’m very passionate about. Evaluating the monetization potential of a game as early as possible in its development. Speaking from my experiences about how to set up games from the start with monetization in mind.
Here it is in the GDC Schedule:

What I’ll be covering:

  • What to focus on during prototyping (and what NOT to focus on)
  • Evaluating core loops for monetization potential
  • Red flags that your core will not monetize at scale
  • Methods to validate a game can monetize with real users

Hope to see you all at GDC!



Mobile Monetization 101: The First Steps

“We should have thought of monetization from the start”

Countless free to play games have launched and failed, and this is a constant regret many game teams have. They should have done more in the beginning to think about monetization. They should’ve been thinking a lot deeper about how their game was going to make money instead of just making a good game.

Learning how to evaluate monetization early is difficult. Most resources talk about clever monetization mechanics (ex. Pricing of in-app purchases, limited time offers, VIP systems, sales, etc.) but rarely is there much information about how to tell if your early prototype has what’s necessary to eventually monetize. The common remark to monetization is that good monetization can only come from good retention, as if just making a fun game will inherently make your game monetize. Anyone that’s launched a free to play game knows this isn’t completely correct.

The truth is that monetization and retention are strongly interconnected and you need to think about both as early as possible within your game. Monetization is not something that you can stumble into if you want to compete on the AppStore. 

But before you start obsessing over your in-app purchase prices and before you start obsessing over sneaky monetization mechanics  — you need to figure out how your game is going to survive as a free to play game. The best way to set up monetization in your game is to ensure that your game has 3 things:

  1. A clear definition of what you are primarily selling
  2. Assurances that your systems will last for years
  3. Ways of pulling the player to the end game

Completing these 3 steps will allow you to set up your game to monetize to its full potential.

Step 1: What are you Selling?

Every top grossing free to play game primarily sells the means to progress.

Progress is the strongest driver of monetization. The top grossing games don’t sell content (ex. DLCs), they sell progress towards an end game.

Progress comes in many forms and sizes. It could mean moving forward on a map. Progress could mean building up a farm. Progress could mean collecting and upgrading characters. To start, you need to define what progress means for your game.

Let’s take a look at 2 games, and what progress means for them:

Candy Crush

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Candy Crush’s core progress is to move forward on a map. Candy Crush focuses all of their monetization mechanics to help progress on the map. They sell boosts, extra moves or charms which all help you progress.

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Galaxy of heroes is all about upgrading & collecting heroes. Each game mode promotes the need to have a large collection of characters. As the game progresses, it demands an increasing upgrade level of your characters, requiring you to progress. They sell the means to progress faster: currencies to train your characters, the ability to fight battles instantaneously, and loot cards to unlock characters faster than your normally can.

Every top grossing game has a long path of progress which is the main focus of their monetization.

You must define the core progress for your game. What do you see players building over a long period of time?

Just to give more examples, here are some of the Top Grossing games’ Core Progress:

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For each of these games, this core progress is the central focus of their monetization strategy. All monetization mechanics give options for the players to speed up their progress.

When you’ve discovered what your core progress is — what the key central point you are going to be selling — then you can start designing monetization mechanics that speed up the player’s progress in interesting ways. You can start designing mechanics that pace the player’s progress giving you opportunities to monetize.

But there is one important step you need to do before you can start creating monetization mechanics: you need to ensure this core progress will actually last. Otherwise you won’t be selling progress for very long.

Step 2: How long will it last?

What you are selling must be able to scale for years.

It doesn’t matter how many monetization tricks you’ve got in your game. If what you’re selling won’t last, you won’t be successful.

This is usually where systems begin to show weakness. Not many systems can last for years. Many of the games that we all loved growing up were great games, but only lasted 10 or 20 hours before the system would crack. These games aren’t well suited for free to play.

An example of this happened when I was working on a racing game prototype. The core of the game was to race against an opponent to the finish while avoiding obstacles.

Our core progress was upgrading your car (similar to CSR Racing). The player collected loot from races to purchase upgrades which would improve their car’s stats. To progress in the game, the player needed higher and higher stats. The key stats to progress were: Speed, Handling, Acceleration and Boost/Nitro. As we tested out the game, we noticed: the more you improved the Speed stat, the harder the game became. The player’s cars were moving faster, which meant that the obstacles were becoming harder to avoid. We had a very limited cap that the speed could be upgraded to without demanding way too much skill from players.

With this cap in mind, we tried many things to avoid the issue. We made all obstacles travel with the player based on the player’s speed to make high speeds more manageable (instead of stationary obstacles, we switched to cars driving with the player on a highway). We adjusted the opposing AI’s speed based on your upgrade level to ensure that each upgrade was necessary. We tried many weird tricks to get the system to work, but all of them fell apart and were making the gameplay feel confusing.

In the end, the cap on our speed stat wasn’t high enough. In order for the game to be successful we needed the cars from the beginning of the game to be much, much slower than the cars at the end of the game. If we wanted the end of the game to take a months to reach, yet each upgrade along the way to feel meaningful to progress, the “Speed” stat was just not going to work.

This was a signal that our system wasn’t going to scale, and our game was not going to work as free to play.

Compare this Speed stat problem to a regular RPG system with Health and Attack. This system can scale almost infinitely.  A 200 HP monster when you have 20 attack is the same as a  200,000 HP monster when you have 20,000 attack. Attack and Health counter each other, allowing both to grow infinitely large. Speed had no counter stat, which made its growth eventually constrained. This is why many free to play games rely on an RPG system of Health vs Attack (ex. Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Best Fiends, Puzzles and Dragons, Summoner’s War) this simple system can scale.

Look at your base gameplay — do the stats scale?

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Health vs Attack: The infinitely scalable system that many of the top free to play games use.

So how do you apply this to an early prototype? How do you ensure that your system will last?

2 basic tools you can use to evaluate your scalability:

  • Model your economy
  • Test your game in the Beginning, Mid and Endgame

Model your Progression

Modelling your game’s economy and progress early is an easy way to give you a sense of just how much content you need and how to pace your game.

Exactly how to do this is a very deep topic that I’d love to cover some day. If you don’t have the skillset on your team to model your economy with a tool like Excel, then you need to get someone who can. Without modelling, it is impossible to see just how you’re going to get your game to last.

But what should the goal be? How long should your game’s progress last?

10,000 hours or $10,000 dollars: that’s how long your system should last.

This of course is just a high level estimate (and easy to remember) but this is a good goal to have if your looking to reach the top grossing charts. Looking at the top games today, they easily go beyond these numbers. Games like Clash of Clans support purchases larger than $10,000 in their games. In comparison to Game Of War, this economy can support a purchases by a single user of over $120,000. These are insane values, but to give you a sense of just how long lasting and resilient these economies are. There is a lot of room in these economies to monetize.

With this model, you have a great tool to show what it will take to last. Compare your model against the models of your competitors in your genre and you’ll have even greater benchmarks for how much content you will need. If you want to beat the competition, your game has to last longer.

Test your Beginning Game, Mid Game, and End Game

When you’ve modelled your game’s economy, you will have a sense of what the beginning game, mid game and end game’s content will be. From this, you can build a prototype which can showcase how the game will feel in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. With this prototype you can ask questions like:

In the beginning, do player progress quickly?
Is each progress step desirable and felt as required by the player?
Is this beginning of the game still engaging or have you taken away too much of the depth?
Is the gameplay easy to get into?

In the midgame, has it sufficiently changed from the beginning game? Does it feel like the game is getting deeper?

In the end game, does the game still work?
Is the amount of skill required to succeed still feel achievable to all of your player types?
Is the end game sufficiently complex and deep? How does my end game depth compare to my competitors?
Is there a dominant strategy, or do you see your end game players debating over best choices?

There are many more questions to ask to ensure the depth of gameplay is there at each stage, but these 3 prototypes can give you a better sense that progress is happening and that your game will work at these 3 stages. This will ensure that the progress that you will be selling is desirable, and that the end game is worth reaching.

Using a model and effectively testing your game at multiple stages in the game is the basics of how to prove your game can last. When your game can last, then you now have the necessary base of a game that can monetize. Now it is time to start driving desire to spend.

Step 3: Why do I care?

You’ve got a core system that can last for years, and a clear definition of what you are selling. All that doesn’t matter if players have no desire to progress.

As free to play games, we are selling virtual items. In reality these things have no value. Our job as game designers is to create systems which create value for our virtual items. When our virtual items have value, we are much more likely to monetize.

Making virtual items valuable is not easy, but thus far most free to play games have focused on 2 ways to do this:

  • Visual progress & teasing a long term vision of the end game
  • Social Pressure

Visual Progress & Tease Long Term Vision

The majority of free to play games use visual progress cues to create a sense of value as you progress through the game. Visual progress can come in many forms, but it must showcase your progress thus far as well as tease future progress. Showcasing your previous progress gives value to your work so far. Gives you real value for your playing time or payments in the past. Teasing the future content gives the “carrot on the stick”. Shows players that there is lots more to come, and hopefully entices them to discover the new content still awaiting them.

The 3 most used examples of visual progress are:

  • The Saga Map
  • Base Expansion
  • Character Collection

#1 The Saga Map

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The Saga map in puzzle games clearly shows the visual progress of the player. Each time you complete a level, you progress on the map. At any time in the future you can scroll through the map and feel good about the progress you’ve made.

At the same time it clouds over the future worlds and hints at the mountain of content yet to come, giving you a reason to continue playing to discover the content.

#2 Base Expansion & Building Progress in Clash of Clans

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Clash of Clans and almost every game like it with a city/base-building component has this to create greater visual progress to the user. Looking at an early level base in Clash of Clans to a late base really shows just how far a player has come. Each time they enter the game they are reminded of their progress. Each base also feels completely customizable and your own. You decide where each piece of wall goes. This creates more attachment to the visual progress — this is your own base.

On top of this, players are teased each time they preview a greater opponent. They can look at the top of the leaderboards and be tempted by how amazing the bases look near the end game.

#3 Characters in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Looking at your character list in Galaxy of Heroes is the best way to see your progress and be teased of the future content.

You can see each of your characters and how amazing they are. This showcases their value. Just below your characters, you can see transparent versions of the characters you have yet to unlock, enticing you of the future progress pulling you along.

These 3 examples show how the top grossing games use visual progress to create value and desire. Each are also tightly tied to what the core progress is for the game itself.

When your core progress is visual, players are much more likely to feel like it is valuable and worth playing or paying for.  When progress is teased, players are much more likely to stick around to see what happens.

Social Pressure

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Want your game to monetize? Then make sure players are engaged socially within your game!

Deep Social mechanics is the key to building a game that retains the longest and monetizes the strongest. When a player is actively engaged in a lively community of players, then the content in the game is far more valuable. As a player, I am far more likely to spend . We’ve already written a lot about how strong community features in your game will heavily influence how well you can monetize:

  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

It is not a coincidence that MMOs like Habbo Hotel (pictured above) monetize so strongly with a core interactions that are quite simple. The deep social interactions that are possible in Habbo Hotel pull players in over a long period of time. Because of this strong social connection, players put a much higher value on looking good, showing off their progress and helping others. As a result players play longer and pay more money.

So when you’re thinking about monetization, make sure that you have truly defined what is going to be pulling players through the game on the long haul. Ensure you have strong visual progress mechanics that show off the player’s progress and tease the late game. Ensure that you have social mechanics which give real value to the content that you’re creating. If players have minimal desire to progress, then it doesn’t matter what monetization tricks you have — they won’t play long enough to spend.

The Last Step: Capitalize

You can see that Steps 1, 2 and 3 don’t really talk directly about monetization. There’s not much about skipping timers, VIP programs, limited time offers or designing virtual currencies. It’s because all that doesn’t matter unless you’ve got a long lasting game.

This is really why many monetization topics usually say “think about Retention before you think about Monetization”. What the real crux of it this statement is: don’t think about monetization unless you’ve got a system that can last. Obsessing over monetization mechanics before you’ve got a long lasting system is futile. However if you’ve nailed a long lasting system that can keep players engaged for a long time, the remaining steps to monetize become significantly easier.

When you’ve got a long lasting system, you can start creating mechanics that pull the player faster forward in that progression by paying or playing the way that you want them to. With enough desire to reach the end game, you can drive players to spend repeatedly to reach it. This is where true monetization begins.

More on the ways to capitalize on your long lasting systems coming soon!

Further Reading:

Mid Core Success: Monetization, Michail Katkoff :

Dimitar Dragonov, Freemium Mobile Games

Critical Mobile Monetization Concepts, Joseph Kim

The Tower of Want, Ethan Levy

Deconstructor Of Fun: Galaxy of Heroes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Miska Katkoff of Deconstructor of Fun to put together a deep deconstruction of Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. It’s now posted on Deconstructor of Fun:

Galaxy of Heroes is a deep game that took strong reference from Heroes Charge. I go into a detailed analysis into all the systems in the game in this article. Some takeaways:

  • Every system in the game is built around supporting their core loop of upgrading and collecting heroes
  • Their deep, complex upgrade system allows players to have strong short-term and long-term goals
  • Galaxy of Heroes supports incredibly long session lengths. You can play this game for hours each day without the game forcing you to leave and without making a dent in its content

For further details, check out the article!


Also, some good news about those interested in my GDC Presentation on Soft Launches: it’s available in the GDC Vault (Vault Access is required)

Soft Launches in 2016

This year at GDC I spoke about soft launching games. A deep dive into how Wooga looks at soft launches, and specifically what you can expect in terms of Cost, Learning and Growth.

Click Here to Download the Slides and watch here if you have GDC Vault Access

Summary & Takeaways:

  • Soft Launches have changed significantly
    • Soft Launching in 2011 was much easier — especially because of the free traffic through facebook virality
  • Soft Launches are more important than ever
    • Wooga learned this the hard way with Agent Alice. You have to validate your LTV & CPI before launching if you want to launch with an effective marketing budget.
  • Soft Launches aren’t cheap
    • Futurama and Max Ammo’s costs were around $250,000 for 5 months of soft launch. This is user acquisition costs only.
    • Wooga Soft launches now typically take 4-6 months, this is mainly to give time for both Validation (ensure LTV > CPI) and Growth (attempt to improve metrics before launch).
  • You can use Low CPI Countries, but only to test, not to validate
    • Don’t use the KPIs ( LTV, Retention ) in your Low CPI test markets to validate your game. Wooga has found that these KPIs change unpredictably from country to country. You can only predict a hit in your key markets (usually Sweden and Canada)
  • Retention is more influenced by Marketing User Quality than Features
    • Don’t just look at your day-to-day or week-to-week retention to see the impact of your changes. It’s very easy to inflate or deflate your retention profile by adjusting your marketing mix (what % of your users come from which acquisition source).
  • The only way to see real impact of your changes in Soft Launch is to A/B test
    • If you NEED to see the real impact of features you need to A/B test. But because Soft Launches have such low DAU, the time needed to get real results from this will drag your soft launch timeline out.
  • Growth of Retention is SLOW
    • We at Wooga typically see an average growth of our retention numbers by 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points per month (1d/3d/7d). So if your retention numbers are far off your target, its going to take a long time to get them up.
  • Large Retention Jumps are usually improved with: Funnel Optimization, Tutorials and Difficulty Adjustments
    • Large Retention jumps don’t typically happen, unless your game is fundamentally broken.
    • The largest bumps in retention that Wooga has seen have come from 3 things:
      • Funnel Optimization: looking for where users drop out
      • Tutorials: optimizing and paring down the tutorial
      • Difficulty Adjustments: looking for frustrations and smoothening progression
  • Growth of Monetization can be done
    • We at Wooga have seen that monetization can grow, especially during post-launch.
    • So if you’re LTV CPI equation is not working only because of monetization, you can still grow monetization during post-launch

Soft Launches will not save your game.

If you don’t see strong metrics during Soft Launch, then don’t expect the Soft Launch to give you the clear learnings of how to fix and grow your game to be a hit. Costs are high, Learnings are difficult, and Growth is slow.




Deconstructing Clash Royale

Supercell has dropped a bomb on the mobile gaming market. Their new game, Clash Royale, soft launched just as 2016 got started. They have soft launched in only 8 countries, but this game is already a sure success. Supercell has already committed the game to a global launch in March.

The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada
The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada

Supercell has made a lot of smart choices with this game. They have a fun, competitive, forward-thinking game that exemplifies what modern free to play design should feel like. Previously I’ve talked about just how difficult Multiplayer on Mobile is to get right, yet here Supercell threw out the rulebook. They’ve now proven that Synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile. Many have even gone as far to say this is the first successful MOBA on Mobile.

Whatever you want to call this game, it will be a success, and it did so while breaking many of the rules.

But enough praise for the game, today I’d like to talk about my favourite subject when it comes to mobile game design: sessions. Specifically, where I think Clash Royale succeeded in creating session design that pulls players back each day.

They did so with 2 clever systems:

  • Free Chest Systems
  • Chest Slot System

Overview of the Game

Clash Royale is a card-based real-time strategy game. The best way to explain it is to watch:

Player use cards to spawn various units to attack opposing player’s towers. The goal is to destroy their towers before they destroy yours. The strategy is in choosing when and where to place your cards: to counter your opponent’s units, and to ultimately press the opponent enough to destroy their central tower.

Overall it is a hectic strategic game that lasts only a few minutes. It feels like a real-time hearthstone match mixed up with the clash of clans gameplay.

The Core:
  • Winning a battle will reward you with chests (in various ways)
  • These chests give you random rewards: gems, coins, and random cards
  • Cards can be upgraded with enough duplicates of the same card, and enough coins
  • To win, you need a variety of Levelled up cards
The Goal:
  • Players want a collection of competitive cards
  • To win as many matches as possible
  • To get as many crowns and trophies as possible
  • To reach highest Arenas
  • To reach the top of the leaderboard (With your clan or by yourself)

The loop is focused on collecting and gathering cards. Not unlike Hearthstone. The big modification though is the ability to upgrade these cards.

Comparing Clash Royale to Hearthstone, the ability to upgrade cards changes matchmaking and progression quite a bit.

To upgrade a card, you need to collect duplicates as well as coins. The real key comes in the rarity of the cards. Some cards are inherently better than others (ex. the Giant), and since they are RARE or EPIC, they drop a lot less than others. So not only do you want to collect these rare cards, you also need to collect a lot of them to fully upgrade the card.

This strong desire to collect and upgrade your cards is what drives all systems in the game. Each session is about attempting to get as many chests (and thus cards) as possible. To collect cards the fastest, the player has to play by the rules that Supercell desires to drive retention and monetization.

#1: The Free Chests System

To analyze Clash Royale’s sessions, let’s start with the most obvious system: how Clash Royale starts and ends its sessions.

For any game, good session design is marked by two things:

  • You’re rewarded each time you come back to the game
  • The game quickly gives you a short-term goal, that can be accomplished within that session, or at least within a few sessions

This is usually accomplished in most games by a few things:

A Rewarding Start:

Good sessions always start off with a instantly rewarding mechanic. Most games aim to have a collection of resources each time you return or a Daily Reward System. This gives the player a good feeling instantly after starting up the game.

Rewarding Start

Short Term Goal:

But having an instantly gratifying mechanic isn’t enough. The player must quickly form a goal which will drive the player further into the game. They need a goal which asks them to engage in the core gameplay.

This dynamic is usually created by a Daily Mission system or wanting to use up all Energy.

Session Goal

Clash Royale creates these 2 dynamics with 2 systems: A free chest every 4 hours, and a crown chest after collecting 10 crowns.


The free chest system marks the beginning of your session: you come in, open up your free chests. It feels rewarding just to come back.


Secondly, the crown chest. To open you must collect 10 crowns from opponents. This gives me a nice short term goal. Even if I am far away from ranking up, I want to collect 10 crowns so I get the crown chest. Realistically this goal can be accomplished in 1 session, or at least within a day.

This is perfect for driving a strong session length. A clear goal as soon as they’ve opened up the app. Something that the player feels good for accomplishing.


This chest can be opened once per 24 hours, which gives a strong daily goal for players. Players wanting to get the maximum number of chests come back each day and play enough matches to collect 10 crowns.

These 2 chests, which take up a small portion of the UI, incentivize strong sessions per day and strong session length.

#2: The Chest Slots System

Secondly lets look at the Chest Slot system.

Each time you play a round, if you win (score more crowns than the opponent), you will receive a chest. This chest is randomly chosen from Silver, Gold or Magical. Each chest takes time to open: 3h, 8h or 12h. You can only open 1 chest at a time, and to restrict things further, you only have 4 slots to store chests.


No other game on mobile has used this pattern for pacing players. This is the first I have ever seen someone attempt something like this. Instead of pacing the players through energy or construction timers, they went with a system that limits the rewards players get. Players can play as often as they like, but in order to progress and upgrade their deck, they need to pace themselves.

This system can only work if they know that :
#1: players won’t grow tired of playing their game… no matter how much they play
#2: their matchmaking and card upgrade system can prevent players from progressing into the higher leagues too fast

#1 is no easy feat, but I believe they accomplished it. Clash Royale is a game, like Hearthstone, that has a shifting meta, no clear answers. Every battle feels different, especially because its synchronous multiplayer.

#2 is based on the big change they made over a pure Trading Card Game system. Because you can upgrade each card, eventually the player will be confronted with decks that are stacked against them. No amount of skill will be able to defeat a deck with higher level units. Because of this, players will eventually need to play the chest opening game. There’s no avoiding it.

Matchmaking aside, what about the overall feeling of the sessions?

This system fulfills the goals of Flexible Sessions. Rather than blocking the player from playing the game, they ask the players to be smart about how they spend their time.

But what about having to come back every 3 hours to clear out a single chest? Why not allow for chests to be opened up automatically? Opened up in queue?

My guess is that Supercell knows the pain that the chest slots creates, and this is intentional for retention and monetization purposes. Players have to organize themselves to hit all their timers. This uncertainty of hitting their Chest Timers drives players to come back, and pay to speed up the timers when they know they won’t be able to return optimally. I know for myself this chest slot system has converted me into paying to skip timers.

But regardless if you’re chest slots are full, the player can continue to play, which really is what drives the flexible sessions. Even if you’ve filled up your chest slots there is a lot of productive things you can do in the game:

  • You can continue to play and push as far up the leaderboard as you can go with your current cards
  • You can continue to collect crowns for the Crown Chest
  • You can donate cards and request cards from clan mates
  • You can chat and read messages from other clan mates
  • You can watch other battles from around Clash Royale (and be teased of late game content or tempted to speed up progression…)

So although the Chest system is restrictive, its not nearly as restrictive as a straight up energy system. And having this “soft” restriction allows highly engaged players to opt-in to leaving the game when they feel smart about it.


Supercell have a big success on their hands with Clash Royale.

They crafted strong sessions with 2 systems:

  • A Free Chest system that gives rewards just for arriving and setting a strong session goal
  • A Chest Slot system that effectively paces players without energy

This base of strong session design is driving strong retention and monetization. I don’t expect Supercell to change much as this game moves towards global launch. I expect that they are mostly focusing on making their end game deeper and more competitive. This will drive the game even further up the Top Grossing charts, and drive even stronger long term retention. This game will be on the charts for a long time to come.

Overall Supercell clearly have opened up new doors with their designs. It shows that synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile, and energy is not needed to pace players properly. Lets see whether this ushers in a new “Clash of Royale Clones” or developers can apply these design lessons to new games on mobile.

GDC 2016: Learnings from Soft Launches

Hey, just a spam post that my GDC 2016 speech has been confirmed and is now in the schedule:

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This is the first year that I’m in the Main Conference in GDC San Francisco.

What I’ll be covering:

  • Show how Soft Launches have changed from 2011 to today
  • How to effectively manage acquisition cost & targeting to maximize learnings while minimizing costs
  • Show by example what numbers (Retention, Monetization, CPIs) can grow quickly in Soft Launch
  • Show with some examples what makes changes these KPIs

Looking forward to GDC!