Deconstructing Fortnite: A Deeper Look at the Battle Pass
It’s hard to go a day without hearing about Fortnite anymore. In February, Fortnite passed PUBG in total revenue on PC and console ($126M versus $103M). While PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds) started a movement, Fortnite created a phenomenon.
However, while the Battle Royale genre continues to heat up, I’d like to focus on a specific topic: the Battle Pass system as the monetization driver. Fortnite, for all of its smart decisions and flaws, made one key choice months after its launch: it wasn’t going to monetize based on loot boxes, instead, it was going to monetize off of its Battle Pass system.
It’s not as if Epic hadn’t thought of making it a loot box driven economy — Fortnite’s own “Save the World” mode is a loot box driven economy which you buy llama-themed pinatas that contain random gameplay-impacting items. Yet for their Battle Royale system, they chose to go against this.
Regardless of what you think of the choice — Fortnite’s revenue shows they’ve done something right. Fortnite has been steady as the top grossing game on mobile for weeks now, demolishing traditional mobile free-to-play titles, and outpacing all other battle royale style games on mobile in both downloads and revenue. The fact that the game was invite-only for the first weeks or so makes the feat even more impressive.
However, these results beg a question: is the revenue coming simply because of the user base size (DAU), or does the Battle Pass system actually drive higher revenue-per-user than a loot box system? In terms of KPIs, we’d be comparing ARPDAU or ideally, LTV.
While no one but Epic can peek behind the curtain and see what their metrics are, we will speculate today!
Fortnite’s Cosmetic-Driven Economy
Much like in MOBAs, Fortnite’s progression and monetization only come from cosmetics. Fornite is a “free-to-win” model: they do not sell anything that could impact the balance of the battle royale gameplay. All guns, armor, ammo is scavenged in the battle royale gameplay, but a player can choose what cosmetics they want to bring into a match.
Fortnite allows you to select a number of cosmetic options to bring into battle:
- A Skin/Outfit your character wears
- “Back Bling” — or a knapsack
- Harvesting tool — a Pickaxe is boring, why not a Scythe?
- Contrail — what Glider you use while falling (gotta look cool while falling)
- Loading Screen — what loading screen you see (only for yourself)
- Emotes to communicate with others. (you can bring in 6 emotes which you can trigger)
Since progress isn’t made through traditional stats and level up, the only way to show off your progress is through cosmetics. It’s not pay-to-progress, it’s pay-to-look-cool.
Until Fortnite, cosmetics-only based mobile games have not been able to achieve strong overall revenue, at least in Western markets. Although the large revenue growth certainly derives strongly from a massive number of installs, the amount of revenue and the #1 top grossing status cannot be explained without a level of monetization heretofore unseen by cosmetics in Western markets on mobile.
With the cosmetic driven economy, rather than dropping new cosmetic gear through gacha/loot boxes (like Overwatch, Destiny, etc.) cosmetics are either purchased with V-bucks (premium currency) or earned through the battle Pass. Interestingly, directly purchasing cosmetics through the shop has limited access. Each day there is a limited selection of items to purchase, so while loot boxes aren’t included in the economy, there is a limited set of items that are available at any time. Great for driving players to check the shop out daily, and giving additional pressure to purchase items while they are available.
The Battle Pass
Besides being able to purchase cosmetics with premium currency, players can also play and earn cosmetics and consumable boosts by completing their Battle Pass.
The Battle Pass is a set of rewards which can be unlocked by completing challenges. Completing challenges rewards the player with XP, which increases your tier, which unlocks subsequent rewards. The challenges themselves range in difficulty but give a baseline of progress for the Battle Royale style game.
When playing a Battle Royale game, especially if you’re not skilled, most games will end up with getting shot and losing all your progress. Also in many battle royale games there can be times when you’re waiting around for other players to arrive. These challenges give players additional goals to think about while playing, and can make even a losing round feel like progress.
The monetization comes in with the free vs premium tracks, much like the VIP system in Wargaming’s World of Tanks (read the full deconstruction of World of Tanks). Free players get far fewer rewards than the premium tier. Creating a very clear conversion effort. Look at all the stuff you “earned” but didn’t receive! The amount of content given out for the premium tier is compelling — its generous in terms of the payoff and pays back your effort quickly. This feels very similar to Annuities or “Subscription Diamonds” in mobile games. A small price that pays out far more than it costs – but only if you engage in the game.
The Battle Pass is limited to a season, which is what makes it so compelling. Each season has a matching Battle Pass, which comes with its own set of cosmetic content and rewards. If you don’t complete the battle pass in time — you don’t get the content. Some content may come in and out of the store on a daily basis — but then it’s usually for high costs of premium currency.
There’s a big “Fear of Missing Out” feeling with this system.
If being able to directly purchase progress was in any other game, most free-to-play designers would shoot this down. It’s usually a far better idea to monetize players on the gameplay itself and not allow players to directly pay to skip. It would feel very pay-to-win if you could directly pay to reach the top arena in Clash Royale, or pay to skip a set of levels in Candy Crush.
However, since Fortnite can’t really monetize on the core gameplay, and this is really just paying to reach cosmetic content (your battle pass tier isn’t really a metric player compare as a sign of skill) — player’s don’t seem to mind, and their revenue isn’t impacted. Player’s have a way to pay-for-progress to the cosmetic items they want.
Want a head start on the season so you can show off the cosmetic items before your friends get there? Pay to skip ahead!
A week’s challenges or season coming to a close and you don’t have time to get all the remaining challenges? Pay to skip ahead!
For this reason, the spend depth and potential of the battle pass system shouldn’t be seen as limited to just the monthly purchase price. When a player has locked into the battle pass, they are more likely to be highly engaged that season to unlock the content and to convert on skipping ahead to get all that content they unlocked.
User Experience of Battle Pass vs. Loot Boxes
Battle Pass can be best described as a system first and foremost for retention and player experience. Comparing Battle Pass to Player Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG), it gives players real goals, a direct sense of progress, and a clear path to the cosmetics that they want. PUBG instead uses a loot box system to gate all of their cosmetic content. Players play a match, get as many “Battle Points” (BP) as possible, to eventually open up a loot box.
These loot boxes can sometimes be locked with a key that needs to be bought with real money, which feels pretty much like a blatant rip-off. Like most gacha systems, as a player, this means the path to desired content is completely luck-driven. You can’t even save your BPs or a dust-like currency (example: Credits in Overwatch, or Dust in Hearthstone) to eventually get the item that you want. You just need to get lucky.
From a player’s perspective, Battle Pass simply feels fair compared to the competitors gacha systems.
So overall, from a player’s perspective, Fortnite’s Battle Pass system is a great match for battle royale:
- It gives secondary goals which give a strong baseline of progress and can keep the game interesting
- It gives players a clear marker of progress through a season and a goal of what to accomplish besides just killing every round
- It’s a compelling conversion item + retention driver. The amount of content for the price and the clear visual of seeing content that you “earned” but can’t access is a compelling driver to both monetize and engage in the game.
- It creates an endowment effect of purchasing an item but only being able to unlock the content if you engage highly in the game
But it’s not as if this Battle Pass system came from nowhere, it’s obviously inspired by the playbook of Valve’s DOTA2. Their compendium battle pass has been a staple of that game since 2013. Looking at Valve’s evolution of the compendium, you can see potentially how this system will evolve in Fortnite.
The Benchmark: DOTA2’s Battle Pass
Started in 2013 as an incentive for players to donate & get interested in the e-sports scene of DOTA2, the compendium was essentially an interactive guide to an upcoming tournament. Similar to a guidebook you’d get at a sporting event: it told you about the players, tracked the stats, and got you interested in the game itself. Valve doubled down on this by making it digital, interactive, and gave a portion of the money raised by the compendium as part of the prize pool. Players had a way of supporting the esports scene for their favorite game.
This has since evolved quite a bit. What started as just a compendium turned into a battle pass. They eventually added goals for players to accomplish in PvP that would increase their level for that season, and unlock cosmetic rewards (just like Fortnite’s today). However, DOTA2 has gone far deeper, with a number of recent additions that significantly increase the depth of the system.
- Multiple Paths give players choices as they progress in the battle pass, giving far more goals in parallel for advanced players. Also, give further reason to reach higher levels in the battle pass (some paths only unlock when you’ve reached a high enough level).
- Unlimited tiers with content unlocking slower and slower over time. Whereas Fortnite is capped at 100 tiers of content, DOTA2 has unlimited. This creates situations where players are even competing against each other to see who can progress farther in a season (when the competition itself is directly pay-to-progress)
- Treasures/Loot Boxes as rewards rather than direct cosmetics. This gives players a mix of direct rewards and a chase to get the random rewards that they want.
So while Fortnite’s Battle Pass system may just be in its “early access” phase right now with a basic feature set, it’s clear that Epic is taking inspiration from Valve’s similar Battle Pass system. This evolution shows that the current implementation is not just limited to 100 tiers of content, but could be a far longer lasting and complex chase which could drive even higher retention and monetization. This system clearly has been successful for DOTA2, since recently they’ve started to shift the system to a full-on subscription style service called “DOTA Plus”. Little details are known at this point, but it looks to be replacing the Battle Pass with an ongoing subscription that gives even further systems and progression.
But comparing the Battle Pass system to a pure-gacha system, is Fortnite (and potentially DOTA2) leaving money on the table? While it’s obvious that its a play for stronger retention and higher conversion, is the lower spend depth hurting them?
Is the tradeoff of giving away all this cosmetic content for higher conversion really the smartest business decision?
Revenue Analysis of Battle Pass
Just how impactful is Battle Pass to monetization? More specifically, we should ask this question on two levels of scope:
- Battle Pass vs. Cosmetics: How does Battle Pass monetization compare to other forms of cosmetics based F2P, mobile monetization?
- Battle Pass Overall: How does Battle Pass monetization compare to F2P, mobile monetization overall (including pay-to-progress models)?
We can get a rough sense for both of these questions by doing some high-level comparison. In particular, we can a) compare monetization of the various “fair-to-play”, cosmetics driven Battle Royale games and then b) compare monetization with “pay-to-progress” game monetization schemed games.
As an initial investigation let’s take a look at lifetime average revenue per install (ARPI) of each of these titles based on Sensor Tower data to comparative, key high-performing titles:
*Note: Rules of Survival does contain some weapons in its loot box, while they are balanced it is not strictly a cosmetics gacha
Source: ARPI based on Sensor Tower data
Battle Pass vs. Cosmetics
Let’s now address the first monetization question we posed above: How does Battle Pass monetization compare to other forms of cosmetics based F2P, mobile monetization?
At first glance, it would seem that Knives Out has the best per user monetization (ARPI) of the Fair to Play games. However, two issues are not fully captured by the chart above:
- ARPI growth over time and
- Audience distribution.
#1. ARPI Growth Over Time
Note the number of months in launch in the Lifetime ARPI chart above. Generally speaking, the longer a game sits in launch, the better the game’s ARPI becomes (eventually achieving it’s LTV):
Source: Based on SensorTower Data
Note the number of months since launch in the lifetime ARPI (avg. revenue per install) chart above. Generally speaking, the longer a game thrives in live operations, the better the game’s ARPI becomes (as the installs decrease and existing users spend more during their lifetime):
#2. Audience Distribution
The other key driver for monetization for Knives Out is it’s audience. Japan *generally* monetizes much more strongly than other countries, often 2x+ that of US. Hence, the large concentration of Japanese users in Knives Out primarily drives the monetization gap between Knives Out and Rules of Survival.
You can see the revenue split by top 5 countries for all three of the games below:
So what happens to monetization if we were to exclude Japan?
Wow, what a difference a country makes! Without Japan, Knives Out actually becomes the worst performing game in term of monetization. Somehow Fortnite per user monetization actually does better without Japan.
Battle Pass vs. Mobile Free-to-Play
Let’s now address the second question we posed regarding Battle Pass monetization earlier: How does Battle Pass monetization compare to F2P, mobile monetization overall (including pay-to-progress models)?
From the Lifetime ARPI chart, it would seem to indicate that more traditional F2P monetization mechanics such as gacha or PVP speed-ups are much more effective on a per-user, unitary level than cosmetics based monetization.
However, we should also take two factors into consideration:
- Months to LTV: How much further can a cosmetics driven monetization last over time?
- Downloads vs. ARPI: Although ARPI for “free-to-win” games may not be as high as other, more traditional F2P monetization mechanics, these games should generate higher install volumes based on the friendlier monetization scheme.
Let’s discuss both of these points in turn.
#1. Months to LTV
So how long can gacha based games continue to increase ARPI until it hits LTV? Unfortunately, we only have 6 months of data on Rules of Survival and Knives Out and less than 2 full months for Fortnite.
One way to estimate the ARPI growth is to just do a logarithmic trendline and extend out the timeframe to say 20 months.
Another way we could guess the eventual LTV of these games is by taking a look at other game examples such as Clash Royale:
Source: Based on SensorTower data
Based on the above ARPI growth continued for at least 15-20 months. Hence, the 20 month timeframe for our logarithmic trendline earlier.
Traditional F2P designers would typically assume that cosmetics driven monetization should hit their LTV ceiling much sooner than a well-designed gacha game.
However, for the sake of simplicity, and just to get a rough feel let’s assume that the fair-to-play game monetization will follow a similar trajectory. In fact, let’s just eyeball all of this pretty roughly to estimate LTV.
Assumptions based on a rough eyeballing of Clash Royale ARPI growth:
- RoS/Knives Out will increase another 50%
- Fortnite to increase by 125%
On the face of it, Knives Out and Fortnite would have similar long-term LTV estimates based on our analysis above. However, when we factor in audience concentration, we can conclude that Fortnite has much stronger monetization design. This was clearly shown when we excluded Japan from our monetization data earlier.
#2. DL vs. ARPI
Although we’ve focused so far primarily on unitary economic measures like ARPI, at the end of the day, what matters most will be the amount of overall revenue (and profit) a game can generate. Hence, in addition to ARPI/LTV we must also look at product level economics by also looking at downloads and in turn overall revenue.
As you can see from the chart below, while free-to-win based monetization has not performed as well on a per player basis, but overall revenue can be quite healthy even compared to top pay-to-progress types of games.
Also note that we only have less than 2 months of data for Fortnite (so it’s not an apples-to apples-comparison), and it has been limited by a number of issues such as being iOS only and having high-end device requirements.
Further, Clash Royale, unlike the other titles, leveraged one of the strongest IPs in mobile gaming and utilized massive user acquisition to help drive stronger install volume for their game.
* Less than 2 months of data only and currently only on iOS
** Puzzle & Dragon started off in Japan only
Battle Pass For the Win!
So, what is our conclusion on the original monetization questions we posed with respect to Battle Pass?
While pay-to-progress style economies will certainly drive higher per-player revenue, for games that monetize off cosmetics the battle pass is certainly showing impressive results. Battle Pass will likely become a dominant monetization system used with cosmetics based monetization in the future. Not only can it provide far better player experience, but by a rough calculation, it shows that it can drive higher LTV.
Just keep in mind these calculations are rough – these are using estimates of revenue and downloads, we’re using trendlines based on a small set of data, and we’re looking at a game that didn’t start from scratch when launched on mobile. The legion of fans that came over from PC/Console area already highly engaged and used to its systems. We’ll need to see how this goes in the coming months!
Yet by these rough calculations, we’re pretty excited. A player-friendly system that gives better goals and drives higher engagement shows the path to stronger revenues. All the while Valve’s DOTA2 shows that this is just the MVP of a battle pass system. Bringing in a hybrid of gacha design and a deeper battle pass will most likely be the future for cosmetic driven games.
Exciting times ahead!
GDC 2018 – Deconstructing Golf Clash and Rules of Survival
At GDC 2018, I had the pleasure of co-presenting a Deconstructor of Fun talk, which Anil Das-Gupta and I deconstructed two top mobile games. I broke down Golf Clash, and Anil broke down Rules of Survival.Watch it on GDC Vault
For Golf Clash, the main takeaways were:
- Golf Clash was the most successful follow up to Clash Royale because it focused on a fundamentally different audience
- Most rivals focused on gameplay, IP or theme, but golf clash went for a completely different audience
- A blue ocean strategy that paid off. At that point there were no other golf games on the market that could retain and monetize as well as the Clash Royale system.
- Golf Clash got this Hybrid to work because:
- Key #1: Balance between Luck and Skill
- Clash Royale works because the core gameplay is actually very skill driven, yet the stats that you can upgrade are still very visible and desirable
- Golf Clash was a great fit for this because of the nature of golf — having multiple clubs for different situations gives plenty of reasons to keep all clubs upgraded
- Ultimately Golf Clash is a skill-driven game by feeling. You’re commonly leaving a match you lost feeling like you could’ve played better, not that your stats weren’t strong enough
- Key #2: Strong implementation of the Gacha system
- Golf Clash’s lower number of clubs meant that they needed to adjust the balance to ensure enough duplicates were happening for progression
- They also needed to ensure that all clubs were useful, otherwise players would end up with a bunch of drops that were useless
- They did this with level design — over time the holes become more horizontal movement over vertical movement, putting more pressure on Spin & Curl over power. (ex. While most clubs only increase by 10% in the power stat, they will double or triple their curl & spin stats)
- Key #3: Overcoming the lack of Shifting Meta
- Golf Clash isn’t a PvP game which can support a shifting meta. Both players race for the cup, but can’t influence each other. My opponents choices do not impact my own.
- As such, Golf Clash had no shifting meta, which is a key component of what makes CCGs work
- To overcome this they added in the buy-in system (from Miniclip’s 8ball pool), and put more focus on events and tournaments. This drives their revenue over the shifting meta.
- Key #1: Balance between Luck and Skill
Golf Clash shows us that the best way to attack the market is still to find blue oceans, and they still exist, even in this state of maturity. Translating mechanics from one audience to another is not trivial, but is clearly worth it!
Getting the Message: Game design for Facebook Instant
Whenever a new platform emerges, it’s always interesting to see how developers jump onto the opportunity.
Instant Games – Facebook’s new developer platform for games on messenger and News Feed – isn’t like most new platform transitions, so for most, this meant a more cautious approach. For one, messenger games are built on HTML5. HTML5 as a technology doesn’t have the best track record for creating great games. Messenger also isn’t necessarily a new platform either – more like a platform within a platform. The platform comes with challenges that come with working within Apple and Google’s ecosystems.
Roll a year on, however, and the platform is showing signs of strength. Games are getting massive growth, developers have competitive eCPMs for advertising, and there is promise of in-app purchases coming in the future. Facebook Messenger continues to grow in user base numbers, reaching more than 1.3 billion monthly users in late 2017. Looking at public user base data that is surfaced on the splash screen for games that load in messenger, the top 10 games have between 3 million and 10 million players. Growth has been unprecedented. A game “Snake Mania” grew by 2.2 million players in seven days during February 2018. Messenger is fast becoming a viable platform.
Player base delta from Feb 19 to Feb 26, 2018
Source: Data as displayed via Instant Games loading screens
However, approaching the messenger platform isn’t the same as mobile design or social web games. Many mobile devs are trying direct ports of their mobile games over to messenger. Some have succeeded with this method (Cut the Rope and Adventure Capitalist) but most have failed. It seems that this isn’t a straight-technical platform change, design needs to change as well.
I believe that moving to Instant Games will be a product and design shift similar to what mobile was in 2010-2011. While many of the same gameplay interactions and UX learnings can be applied to Instant Games on messenger (it still is a mobile platform with touch controls), to drive retention on the platform is not a simple port. Re-thinking core loops, progression, interactions from the ground up is necessary to reach the full potential of the platform.
This is something that we’ve learned at Chatterbox Games over the last year of developing games for Facebook Instant Games and iMessage – that many of the best practices of mobile don’t apply to messenger games, and to overcome the initial challenges you really have to think about the opportunities that only exist in the messenger context.
It’s not a Marketing Channel
Thinking messenger is a marketing channel is commonly how many mobile game developers will approach the platform. I don’t blame them – mobile is a highly competitive battlefield and developers are desperate for any leg up they can for getting installs. However, developers who think messenger games are a free place to get new players are mistaken.
While messenger games can gain insane levels of growth, they are all limited to playing within messenger itself. Facebook has worked aggressively to build Instant Games on messenger as a platform on its own. One of Facebook goals is most likely to drive increased engagement within messenger, not drive players into your games, so attempting to use the platform to pull players away from the platform won’t work – nor will you need to. Games can work and be profitable as its own business unit, so why fight against it?
That being said, Instant Games can be used for branding. Nordeus and ZeptoLab have done a great job at this; Golden Boot by Nordeus has Top Eleven branding all over the game, but does not directly link to the game or push players outside the platform, while ZeptoLab’s Cut the Rope Instant re-creates the same feeling of playing a native mobile version. This can drive organic installs to their mobile game, but regardless both of these games have a substantial user base on Instant Games and can build a business case on its own. Branding has its benefits, but revenue generating games are always better.
If messenger is not an acquisition channel, then the games built for it have to stand on its own in terms of retention and monetization. It’s possible, but only if you think critically of how retention can be sustained within a chat app.
Retention is Difficult
As we’ve mentioned before, retention on messenger platforms is lower than native mobile – indeed it’s more similar to Facebook canvas than it is to native mobile. This is intuitive: Most users are going into messenger to chat with their friends, not to play games. Messenger games don’t install to your phone – there’s no icon on the home screen, no push notifications, no red dots to let you know when to come back. Messenger games have to drive retention in other ways.
Retention instead has to come from what’s unique about the platform: social interactions. Retention is driven by friends pulling you back to play against them, or working together.
On native mobile, Facebook adoption has become tougher. Most developers would rather push players to play in guilds with other active players than real friends, yet knowing from launching countless mobile games in the past, players that connect to Facebook and actively play with friends retain far better. With messenger, this social connection is no longer an option – Facebook connection is a natural part of the user experience. Right from the start you have access to friends that are playing the game, displaying them in a leaderboard, challenging them, gifting them.
Social Contexts & Bots are Imperative
Messenger’s first priority is still to be a chat app, so real estate for games isn’t limitless. In order to have a path to your game and retain players, you have to fight to stay relevant in a player’s chat application. Facebook has the games tab along the bottom for finding new games to play, but to retain players you’re going to have to go farther than that.
This is done through creating social contexts and by maintaining a bot channel:
Social contexts are chats with friends or groups which your game is relevant to the conversation. You can see from the image above, in both a group chat and a one-on-one conversation, a player has posted to this chat and now there’s a clear call to action to start the game.
Your Bot channel is the other method – think of this as your home screen icon within the Messenger app. However, it functions more like a chat with a friend. This allows you to communicate via messages to your players, giving out rewards and notifying them when things are happening within your game:
However, bot channels can quickly become spammy, and Facebook is very restrictive over how often games can send messages. If players don’t engage with your bot, it will quickly drop off their messenger home page. If players don’t want to be bugged by your game, muting the channel is a quick button press away. Facebook has learned from their early gaming days to prevent game developers from ruining the user experience of their platform.
As a result, this is the real design challenge for a messenger game:
- How do you design games that can naturally stay relevant in both friend’s chats and group’s?
- How do you design mechanics so that bots that aren’t spam and remain relevant to players?
- How does the design of your games make the bot and social contexts compelling to return?
These aren’t normal design problems for a native mobile game.
Creating Social Interactions
The best games on the platform will attempt to create the strongest social interactions. This will both be great for the game’s virality and their retention, so let’s just push players to spam their friends in order to play, right?
This has led to many of the initial interactions on the platform to be straight from the playbook of old Facebook social games:
- Gifting Lives between friends in Cookie Crush
- Getting “Honor Points” for sending messages to friends in Everwing
- Forcing players to play with friends even in single player experiences
However, this isn’t really leveraging the platform for what it does best, and isn’t sustainable.
What has stood out as new to messenger games are group chat dynamics: a game pushes players to engage with their group chats: working together to solve a problem or competing against each other.
The strongest implementation of social interactions are “group raids” – the idea that you can start a challenging level that can be only completed if you work together with others in a group chat. The more powerful the members are, the more difficult the challenge you can complete, and the bigger the rewards.
This system allows players of all progress levels to work together, prod each other to play more, and feel rewarding to play with friends. However, this is limited to games that can give a similar depth of rewards as an RPG game, not all games can work with a system like this.
Other games attempt to use turn-based gameplay. That after each turn a player would send you their move. We’ve attempted a couple times last year to focus on turn-based interactions with your friends in messenger games, but we found it isn’t the best for retention. The key reason: if players can’t keep playing because they’re waiting for friends, they will leave the game. In the same way that “Words with Friends” or “Draw Something” from native mobile were interesting only while your friends played the game, as soon as your friends stopped responding, you had no reason to come back. Some games have gotten this to work (8 Ball Pool by Miniclip and Words with Friends), but these were launched very early on the platform and have sustained a large critical mass of players. New developers to messenger will have a harder time to reach that critical mass.
For some games, to solve this means adding more modes where you can play against strangers as well. When looking at Golden Boot from Nordeus, this most likely drove a lot of its success. You can match with strangers when friends aren’t active. In the case of Snake Mania, the top growing game mentioned above, focuses solely on playing with strangers.
However, I believe this starts to water down what separates messenger games from native mobile games. While this is currently working – by mimicking what is already retaining well on native mobile – the future for messenger games will do a better job of integrating social interactions with friends. Making playing with your friends the optimal way to progress.
As discoverability becomes an issue on the platform, developers will need to rely more heavily on social contexts to drive retention and installs. Games that are able to integrate social interactions smartly will be the winners.
Instant Games are still in their infancy, but the marketplace is maturing very quickly. Within a year, there already has been big shifts in what games work on the platform. Many games that were big on the platform a year ago are no longer (Galaga, Space Invaders, PAC-Man), and plenty of new hits have moved up the charts within the last months (Snake Mania, Cookie Crush).
Instant Games games will be the “Wild West” for some time. As more developers join the fray and discoverability becomes an issue, the games’ design will need move towards making social-focused games on the platform. My recommendations for anyone looking to join the messenger gaming market:
- This isn’t about UA for your mobile game: Instant Games is a platform on its own and can be a viable business model. Work with the platform holders and build an audience on messenger, don’t think of it as a new way to acquire users.
- Retention isn’t easy: Without the install, its hard to stay relevant to your players. You have to stay on the player’s mind and drive social interactions to stay relevant.
- Design for a useful Bot & a variety of Social Channels: Bots and social contexts are the only way to drive players back to your game, so create lots of ways your friends can work together and ensure your bot stays useful.
- Don’t let social interactions get in the way of engagement: While social interactions are useful for pulling players back, don’t use social interactions to pace players. Don’t make players wait for their friends to play the game.
- Social interactions between friends is where to focus: Despite many games success so far focusing on strangers, as the platform becomes more competitive the area to focus will be on strong social interactions between friends. This channel will drive sustained retention and engagement.
I’m really looking forward to the year ahead for messaging games – it’s going to be a wild one. I can assure you one thing for those who are building messenger games: It won’t be boring.
Creating a Strong Gacha: How the Pros Make Sure Duplicates Aren’t ‘Bad Drops’
Due to the Star Wars Battlefront II controversy, the industry is taking a far closer look at what monetization practices are ethical, and whether the industry can police itself or needs further regulation to avoid misuse.
In the meantime, it’s likely loot boxes will still be featured heavily in the top charts as the revenue potential of gacha and loot boxes is hard to ignore. Using a random drop system has allowed many new genres and core loops to flourish.
However, designing for gachas isn’t a simple design process. Not all genres and not all types of gameplay can be ported to support a loot box design. We’ve already talked about some of the necessary ingredients:
- Part 1: Ensuring your gacha system has enough depth to sustain drops over time
- Part 2: Ensuring your gacha system has enough width to ensure that each drop is useful to a player
Now, it’s time for the third element: how to handle duplicates. It’s what we call an edge case, but it’s a process that will define how your game will feel over the long haul: Do players feel like duplicates are useful or useless?
Duplicates vs Bad Drops in a Gacha System
The first thing to master when it comes to a gacha system is how to think differently about two situations that can arise; duplicates and bad drops.
For example, let’s assume that we have a Gacha system similar to Overwatch – our boxes only drops cosmetic items. As a result, each item that we drop is permanent (the player keeps it forever and it can’t be “consumed”) and players are chase after the cosmetic items they want for the characters they play as.
In this system, a ‘bad drop’ could be a cosmetic item for a character that I don’t play as – maybe in the future I will, but for the time I’ve been playing I haven’t taken to the character in question. As such, this is most definitely a bad drop.
Ideally, I should be able to convert this item into something of value so that I can eventually get the items that I want. In games such as Overwatch and Hearthstone, this means converting any bad drop into a dust-currency, which allows you to purchase the items you want directly.
However, also inherent in this system are duplicates. In this situation, I receive the same cosmetic item for a character that I already have, which feels like a big loss. It’s doubly frustrating if the game drops a high rarity duplicate (i.e. a legendary skin) as this feels like a massive waste – I was lucky enough to receive a legendary item, but unlucky that it was an item that had dropped before.
As previously suggested, games like Overwatch and Hearthstone handle this by allowing players to convert these items to dust, essentially treating a duplicate the same way as a bad drop. However, the amount of dust dropped is a fraction of the cost of purchasing the skin you want directly, so players still feel terrible when they pick up a duplicate.
As a result, Overwatch eventually went public about adjusting the drop logic to avoid duplicates as much as possible, while Brawl Stars even removed duplicates outright. However, in my view it doesn’t need to be this way. Removing duplicates from your system reduces depth, and puts more pressure on your team to develop more content. Ideally duplicates would be celebrated by players, making this rare occurrence into something of value, rather than serving as a regretful outcome.
In light of this, let’s look at how to build out better gacha duplicate mechanics:
Six Mechanics for Handling Duplicates
#1 Duplicates Aren’t Duplicates
A different way to avoid the pain of duplicates is to make sure duplicates rarely happen.
One way to do it is to make each piece of content generate in many subtly different ways. For example, a weapon or character can drop, but certain sub-elements are randomized and generated.
Using this method, if a duplicate item drops, there are smaller comparisons that players can make between the drops. This is done when gear or drops are both procedurally and randomly generated and there are enough smaller detailed stats that players actively want to optimize.
For example, in the first Destiny you could get the same piece of gear dropping many times.
However, each drop had randomized stats and perks associated with it, causing players to head into a chase in the end game to find unusual builds of gear. The game included perks that offset the problem of some guns being overpowered in competitive modes like The Crucible. While this obviously went overboard causing severe balancing issues, this shows the power of procedurally generated gear – it deepens the chase and makes duplicates something players actively go after.
However, this system can result in players ending up with mountains of weapons and gear that they don’t want to use. As a result, designers need to find ways of converting all bad drops into something of use to players, such as:
- Gold to purchase more weapons
- Dust to re-roll the weapon perks of your choice
- Resources to upgrade the weapons that the player actually wants
While such solutions put the duplicate issue to bed, it also puts more pressure on the bad drop system.
One system that hasn’t been used often is the repair system..
Fallout 3 used this effectively by asking players to collect duplicates to maintain their gear. Have an amazing piece of gear? It will eventually deteriorate and be less effective over time. To repair it, you can pay a large amount of currency or find duplicates of your gear to repair for free. If the deterioration is felt as fair to players, this can create a repeatable grind to find duplicates of your gear to maintain its highest possible gameplay effectiveness.
This system is likely avoided because of the consumable feel that drops from the gacha become: The feeling that an amazing item will drop, but one that’s only useful briefly. It’s a feeling that anyone who played Zelda: Breath of the Wild will definitely find familiar
#3 Fusion (Unlocking Potential)
[Source: Both Guns Blazing]
Fusion is the typical way that Japanese and Chinese games have made duplicates relevant. These games typically focus on selling stat improvements over cosmetics, and because of this they focus their duplicate mechanics more on unlocking higher stat growth.
Fusion mechanics are designed in a way that requires the player to receive a duplicate in order to increase the stat potential of a card. As such, while you can upgrade a card up to high level, unlocking the ability to upgrade it even further requires you to “evolve” or “awaken” the card with a duplicate of itself.
When looking at the stacking probability needed to get the highest star rating, it’s easy to see why they do this. You can drive a lot of depth in a gacha system by asking players to chase after duplicates without adding more content.
The problem with this comes in the randomness of the system. Getting a single duplicate becomes so important in this system that players can become very frustrated. Players have no grindable path to unlock the potential for their favourite characters. Hence, designers came up with a new system: Sharding.
As duplicate systems changed over time, there was a need to make them more flexible and granular.
To solve the issues of fusion, gacha games started to experiment with shards instead of duplicate fusion, best seen in Western Gacha games like Galaxy of Heroes. With shards, each character can’t be unlocked until you have collected a certain amount of shards. In the above example, Grand Moff Tarkin requires 80 shards to be unlocked.
However, that’s just to unlock the character. To upgrade the character to its maximum potential, the player would need to collect additional shards, so “duplicates” are simply just additional shards needed to progress to the maximum potential.
With characters now needing hundreds of shards instead of single drops to reach the maximum characters, games added mechanics which allowed players to grind for specific shards, so players that are looking to upgrade or unlock their favourite character could grind specifically for it. This wasn’t possible with the fusion system before, since giving a single card could mean massive progress for players. In short, sharding allows clear progress.
However, there remains one big problem: opening up a gacha pack you’ve paid for and receiving mere pieces of a character – nothing that you can use there and then. It’s a transaction the player almost always regrets and, as a result, Supercell came up with a workaround.
#5 Unlock & Upgrade
Clash Royale provided a completely new framework for how to handle duplicates. It took the best of the Shard framework, made the handling of duplicates restrictive, yet still has a gacha system that feels fair.
With Royale’s system, each card is unlocked after getting the first card. This feels far better than shards because getting a new card feels amazing – there’s no more paying for “parts of a character”.
After you unlock the card, the card becomes a duplicate sink. In order to upgrade the card, you need to collect a number of duplicates of that card. It removes any needed management of duplicates, while giving a clear path for players to upgrade their cards.
Due to the design, players will unlock cards fairly quickly (you only need one card), but the majority of the chase is after the (thousands) of duplicates necessary to upgrade your cards to a competitive level. This system has significant depth, allowing Supercell to be generous with the cards it gives out, and keep players collecting for years.
However, despite its perks, this design still has disadvantages. For one, Clash Royale has to work really hard to try to ensure that as many cards as useful to players as possible. Otherwise, getting a duplicate for a card you aren’t using is completely useless (the only way to get value from it is to trade it away to clan mates). This works very well for CCG style games, but many games can’t support this level of gacha width – where every item from the gacha is theoretically useful.
#6 Unlocking Better Cosmetics
All these mechanics thus far are primarily focused on handling situations where duplicates give out better stats – they “unlock the potential” of an item so they can be upgraded further. This works great for games that are RPG-based and are comfortable with players speeding up progression (ex. Clash Royale), but most competitive PvP games can’t do this, such as Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, and League of Legends. Competitive PvP games can really only sell cosmetics. So, how do you add value to duplicates for cosmetic economies?
This is considerably harder, which is why most cosmetic driven games end up allowing players to convert duplicates into dust (ex. Overwatch) or allow players to sell them on a secondary market (ex. Counter Strike: Global Offensive). League of Legends has even dabbled in at first not fully “unlocking” the cosmetic, but only allowing the player to “rent” the cosmetic. Getting duplicates eventually allows the player to convert their duplicates into a permanent item.
However, beyond this, the only thing you can do is make duplicates of cosmetic gear unlock cooler/better visuals of a cosmetic item. In Counter-Strike: Go (CS:GO), they use a “decay” system to do this.
In CS:GO, each item is dropped with a randomly assigned “decayed” attribute. This could mean that the item looks brand new, or is heavily worn down. Getting a duplicate allows players to find items which have far less wear, meaning that players aren’t just chasing that “item”, but also chasing the best looking version of it. The visual differences between “Factory New” and “Battle Scarred” are striking – making the value of having the highest valuable version of the item very important to players that are chasing after cosmetics.
As such, similar to stats, cosmetics can have a “unlocking potential” of their own – you just need to make sure your cosmetic items can have varying degrees of visual quality.
Summary: Duplicates aren’t Bad Drops
In any Gacha system, regardless if you’re just dropping cosmetic items or gameplay impacting items you, as a designer you are responsible for ensuring that there is as little remorse or regret from players – for making sure that each purchase of a loot box feels rewarding to players.
- Gacha depth helps ensure that you can sustain drops from a gacha.
- Gacha width ensures that each item is as useful as possible.
- However, Duplicates are inevitable, and how you handle them is important to achieve the balance between a system that feels fair to players and doesn’t cripple your studio by producing lots of content.
There are seven examples of mechanics you can use to handle duplicates and give them value:
- Dust: Allowing players a path to purchase items they want
- Duplicates aren’t Duplicates: Using procedural generation to have subtle differences between drops
- Repair: Duplicates can power up a previously owned item
- Fusion: Unlocking further potential
- Shards: Breaking fusion up into a more granular path
- Unlock & Upgrade: Unlocking higher stat levels with duplicates, no option for duplicates
- Unlocking Better Cosmetics: unlocking better looking versions of the same cosmetic
Each have their pros and cons, but hopefully can help you decide what is the best path for your game.
New Year, New You, New Bible
Happy New Year! In amongst all the disregarded party poppers, half drunk glasses of Prosecco, and trays loaded with fast drying out canapés, we can confidently report it is indeed 2018.
To start the new year off on the right foot, we’ve decided to come proffering gifts: namely, a new Free to Play Bible, building on its existing foundations to offer both upcoming and established mobile developers the resources they need to deliver an engaging and, most importantly, successful free to play game.
And we’re not done yet, either. Throughout 2018, we’ll be updating the links and adding new articles of our own on the main blog to flesh the Bible out even further. It’s going to be a busy year.
Within the F2P bible we’ve pulled together a lot of content, linking to articles, opinion pieces, and videos by experts from across the web. We’ve separated the Bible into many different chapters, each taking a look at a different focus for game designers and product managers operating in the free to play space.
To begin with, we go into the basics; how to get started in game design, what it takes to be successful as free-to-play, and the high-level view of the free to play market.
Secondly, we dive into free to play design topics; how do you design and articulate a core loop, what gameplay works best in free to play, designing for touch controls on mobile, and how to approach session design.
Thirdly, we go deep into the core systems of free to play games; improving retention and monetization, the design of gacha systems, alongside evaluating economies.
Lastly, we talk about the operations and growth side; how do you soft launch? How do you make money with ads? How do you grow a game?
Altogether, we hope the new refreshed free to play Bible should serve as the perfect starting point for developers old and new, motivating them for the year ahead.
Following the Crowdstar: How one studio ripped up the ‘female first’ gaming rulebook
This post is co-authored between Adam Telfer and Michail Katkoff of Deconstructor Of Fun.
Since Facebook fully embraced free-to-play, Crowdstar and others have strove to get to grips with what’s perhaps rather crudely been referred to as “female first” gaming – to make their name as a company that truly understands and delivers on an underserved demographic in the market.
In practice, what this translated to was – at least initially – a series of “cute” style games; taking care of sweet animals, managing a farm packed full of farm animals with massive eyes, or dressing up games with way too much glitter and pink everywhere. It ended up with studio creating games for a stereotype: a fictitious and overly simplistic view of what might interest women, with very little understanding of the nuances the chosen demographic actually wanted.
Worst still, not all too many developers successfully went much deeper than that, believing that focusing a title on cute animals with big eyes was how you made a games ‘female friendly’.
Crowdstar challenged that assumption with the creation of the Covet Fashion and Design Home games, and it paid off. The game is one of the first of its kind to truly create a social network-game hybrid that recreates the feeling of being a professional in fashion design and interior decoration. It’s also one of the few games to really deliver on the actual professions of interior design or fashion without feeling cutesy.
Not only that, Crowdstar has managed to deliver a strong core loop built around equally strong principles of great F2P design – a core loop that, dare I say it, has never before been seen on the App Store. So, why was it so successful?
A Brief History of Glu & Crowdstar
Crowdstar was founded back in 2008, first focusing on free-to-play titles for Facebook Canvas before a shift to mobile in 2012. Crowdstar initially raised a $23 Million Series A in May 2011 on the back of the company’s success on Facebook success, raising an additional round of $11 Million in May 2012 to finance a pivot to mobile.
The company has always focused on female first games, beginning by focusing on animal care based games on Facebook – Happy Aquarium, Fish with Attitude – before eventually moving towards Fashion and now finally interior decorating.
Covet Fashion was launched in 2013 and has remained within the Top 200 grossing since launch, although it has been in a slow and steady decline since Fall 2016. Design Home launched during this period and has remained within the Top 100 grossing since launch, despite having a smaller feature set compared to Covet Fashion. Delivering on these games, Crowdstar cemented itself as a top developer, catching the eyes of the bigger players on the App Store.
As a result, Glu acquired controlling interest in Crowdstar just before the release of Design Home in 2016, mostly due to Glu’s decline in its licensed celebrity IP stardom style games – Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Katy Perry Pop games some of the most notable. Glu’s network of players from its stardom game network was a strong cross-promotion platform for the Crowdstar games, which made it a clear better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts acquisition. Crowdstar now has dominant control of the fashion and interior decorator network audience, alongside Glu’s strength in marketing, analytics, UA and live operations experience.
Design Home’s core loop is straightforward. Players participate in timed Challenges that ask them to design spaces with certain requisites.
- Player Selects a Challenge from a List
- Completes the Design Challenge by selecting furniture from their personal collection
- Submit their Challenge and wait for other players to vote on it. Rewards are based on how well their creation was rated by the community.
- In order to start the next competition, the player needs to collect Keys. Keys are earned by voting on other player’s creations.
Let’s break down each step in a bit more detail:
Step 1: Selecting a Challenge
The core of the game is about selecting from a list of limited time events, which challenge the player to design for a specific style of home. For example, the “Tropical Heaven” event requires players to furnish a tropical living room so that it ‘feels like heaven’ at a resort in Fiji’s Yasawa Islands
Events can be from any location around the world, with vastly different requirements from one event to the next. Some events can be “key daily events”, while others can be included as part of wider, themed seasonal events. For example, the game has played host to an event for home improvement TV channel HGTV. As part of the tie up, players could enter “HGTV themed” competitions and have their respective scores tallied there.
When a player has selected an event they want to take part in, they pay the entry fee – in this case, keys – and then start designing.
Step 2: Designing
After a player has selected their Challenge, they are given a short fictional brief before entering a room devoid of furniture and decorations. All but the Daily Challenges come with unique requirements, such as furniture of certain style or color.
Each Challenge is a room filled with two kinds of ‘spots’: one spot where the player is required to fill with certain type of items, and a second spot ones where what they can place is optional. Player can’t change the colors of the wall or move the spots where items are placed, meaning play takes the form of a very simple placement puzzle that limits the creativity but also makes it easy for anyone to complete a Challenge.
Players can place items they own as well as pieces that they don’t own. If a player doesn’t have the necessary items, they can purchase or borrow them on-the-spot to fulfill requirements or make the room come together. After all of the required items have been placed, player submits the Challenge for other players to review. Submitting the Challenge rewards player immediately with Coins and XP.
It’s important to notice that once player has submitted their Challenge, they also lose the ability to use those items in other challenges until the submitted Challenge is over. This forces player to have bigger collections and multiples of the same item.
Step 3: Waiting for Results
After a player has completed their Challenge, they receive a Cash and XP reward. However, this is just the base reward. They need to wait for all other players to vote on their creation to get a final rating.
After the voting time is over, a player also receives a bonus reward based on how their design was perceived by the community. The verdict comes in form of a five star rating and if a player exceeds four stars, they will receive a piece of furniture as a reward.
Step 4: Vote to Earn Keys
Pacing in Design Home is handled partially through Keys – Keys that, quite literally, unlock events. Each time a player votes for a few other player’s designs, they are given keys, with five votes awarding three keys. In practice that means a player needs to vote on 45 different designs in order to enter a Challenge.
This forces players to not only be a part of the design creation, but also encourages them to constantly vote and legitimize the ratings they receive.
Besides keys, players are also paced by their collection of furniture. Each piece of furniture they purchase has a limit of one to three pieces, so players with smaller collections can’t enter in as many competitions. Also players are incentivized to have a wider collection of pieces, since using up all your best furniture in one event is not wise.
3 Keys to Design Home’s Success
#1: Events at the Core
The first key reason for Design Home’s success is the way that their core gameplay is wrapped around constantly changing events.
This is a design that’s now being replicated outside of Crowdstar’s lineup. Finnish giant Supercell used a similar design in Brawl Stars, while Seriously used a similar design in their upcoming game Best Fiends Rivals. Like Crowdstar, they’ve all realised it’s a great way to create a constantly changing core.
Why it’s so effective:
- The game almost simulates the social media ‘feeds’ of the likes of Facebook and Instagram, making the player feels like there’s always be something new, something interesting going on with the game. It’s a strategy that pulls the player back throughout the day to see what new modes, what new events are happening
- This gives the developer an easy way to change up the gameplay over time through live ops; introduce new modes, limited time events, to drive interesting changes to the game. This is the key to long term retention. Events are increasingly the most important feature within a game which can make all the difference when the game is live. As reported in the “Toon blast” article, competitive events which change up the core slightly and add variety are proven to drive engagement and revenue. It can turn a good game into a great game
#2: Monetizing On Emotion
Design Home doesn’t follow a lot of recent trends in monetization. It doesn’t have gacha, it doesn’t use a lot of timers, it doesn’t even allow players to skip the voting timers to get their rewards early. So, just how does it succeed?
Crowdstar monetizes from two key systems; slowly pushing players to care about their overall rating, and creating an emotional connection to what you’re creating. As a result, they monetize like no one else does.
The base of monetization in Design Home is the slowing of progress – specifically the overall score of the players’ accounts. After each event, your voting results impact what your account’s overall score is. In short, to increase your score, you need to get great results.
Design Home’s rating algorithm is set up in a way such that the voting results ratings typically fall between 3.0 and 5.0 rating. Getting lower than 3.5 rating seems to be a very rare occurrence. To begin with, your account’s overall score is 2.0. So, as a player first joins, each result from voting is guaranteed to make major progress to their review score.
When a player reaches a 3.5+ rating, this progress significantly slows down. In order to reach a 4+ rating they need to be consistently getting a voter rating of over 4. This requires a large collection of furniture alongside a sense of what will rate highest in a given event.
As a player hits this 4+ tipping point, their progress significantly slows once more and the easiest way to make progress is to buy the newest, best valued furniture & equipment.
In short, Crowdstar has created a system where players actively care about their overall score, and so only want to submit designs that will increase it. As a result, the second major monetization point comes from the just-in-time purchasing of items and emotional connection.
On this emotional score, each player lives out the fantasy of being a Interior Decorator in play. When decorating a room, the motivation stems from creating the space they envision will win the competition. However, especially early in the game, they have very limited access to the most desirable furniture.
This is where the “just-in-time” purchasing is impactful. Players can preview how amazing a new piece of furniture would look in their design, and purchasing with Cash or Diamonds is just a quick tap away.
As the player progresses, inevitably they will need to grind for major resources. Cash and Diamonds will become strapped as they progress due to how expensive the furniture is and how low each competition pays out. So over time, players will have to decide if they grind events by putting any possible furniture into it – wait a long time for their furniture to return to their collection – or spend.
Crowdstar really preys on the player’s internal drive to create only great things. No one wants to feel like they are submitting a design to a social competition that is sub par, especially when your Facebook profile associated with it.
The key learning here is, players are willing to spend both to maximize their chance of a high rating and because no one likes submitting something that they aren’t proud of.
By combining these two systems, Crowdstar has created the perfect storm – it’s whipped up a great way to monetize off players purchasing decorations directly, which is a system that no other developer in the top grossing uses to this degree.
#3: Professional Visuals & Real-Life Brands
Lastly, what key aspect I believe that drove the success of Covet Fashion and Design Home is that these games aren’t designed to look like a usual cutesy free to play game – they are styled like a professionally designed app.
If you look at many of the Fashion Styling and Interior Decorating games created before it, they all resembled over the top pink, cartoony, and pretty gaudy color selection. Design Home’s look and feel is closer to a furniture magazine or professional software for interior decorating compared to a game. This both reinforces the fantasy and I believe strikes a chord with the audience – it’s a game for mature designers, not for kids.
Of course what really ties this all together is the use of brands within the game it’s a win-win situation for both Crowdstar and the brands involved. Design Home is seen as a professional designing game by the game’s audience – a game where players get to place real furniture that they could feasibly buy in real life, and can even within the app.
On top of this, brands get exposure within the app to their target audience: people that love designer furniture. Brands like HGTV sponsor events, furniture brands can pay Crowdstar to increase the sorting rank of the furniture they put in game. Brands can even pay Crowdstar to have “brand exclusive” events — ex. one where only “Blink Home” furniture is allowed.
Design Home and Covet Fashion before it are key games for Glu + Crowdstar. The company has created a successful hybrid of a social network and a game, and delivered a competitive PvP environment for a traditionally competition-lite market – fashion and interior decorating. It creates strong long term retention and plenty of outlets for Crowdstar + Glu to build upon for the years to come.
My keys for their success:
- Event-driven core loop which gives enough variety that player’s collections are constantly challenged and giving Crowdstar an outlet to build limited time events and interesting new competitions to drive long term play
- The core loop monetizes strongly on player’s key emotions: that they want to reach the top of the leaderboard by creating the best possible designs + that they never want to publish anything that they don’t believe is quality
- That the game is designed as a professional design app rather than a cutesy game. This is a game that fully understands its market
Toon Blast & The Death of Saga
At the beginning of this year, Peak games soft-launched a game called “Toon Blast”. Some developers took a look, but most pushed it aside. The game appeared to be a direct re-skin of Toy Blast, Peak games’ original hit game.
Time went on, and Toon Blast was finally globally launched in August 2017. Again, most developers took a look, dismissed it as a re-skin, then walked away. But under the surface Peak Games was testing a key change within the game that is a true sign of the times: they removed the Saga Map:
For those creating matching games, this has been a slow but obvious change. Since King dominated the puzzle game genre starting in 2012/2013 developers in the space have been actively trying to differentiate themselves from the dominant players.
The Evolution of the Matching Genre & Toy Blast
In 2014 there was Gummy Drop by Big Fish Games, which added a dash of resource management to the saga framework. Players collected resources to eventually be able to afford to move through gates. Also in 2014, Seriously launched Best Fiends, which added a light RPG upgrade system on top of the core mechanic. In 2015 Playrix launched Fishdom, where players could collect fish and decorate their fish tanks. In 2016 Playrix launched Gardenscapes, already deconstructed here, which added narrative and decoration to the saga metagame. The biggest games in the genre managed to add new elements to the metagame to separate themselves from the usual Saga-based model.
But during that time, most matching game companies stuck to the pure Saga framework. Some saw modest success with it, while others did not. Peak Games was one of the few who did see success with the Saga framework. Toy Blast, launched in 2015, featured a pure saga model, but with a new yet familiar take on the core mechanic.
Toy Blast’s main mechanic was similar to older games like Collapse, Diamond Dash or Pet Rescue Saga. Instead of asking players to swap, players simply had to tap individual groups of gems. Any group of 2 or more pieces could be removed instantly, but each costs a move. Similar to Candy Crush in terms of strategy, but feels very different. While the interaction itself is fast, as you get into the more difficult levels you start to see that this mechanic can be far more punishing if you’re not paying attention, and rewarding if you’re planning a few moves ahead.
Still, most developers dismissed Toy Blast initially as “just another Candy Crush clone” — but this is definitely not reflected in the numbers. Looking at net monthly revenue from Sensor Tower, Toy Blast has grown into a massive revenue driver:
Toy Blast grew to be a sticky top grossing puzzle game. But unlike most top grossing games, it was clear that Peak Games had a slow and steady growth to the top. Much to the credit of their team, they managed through methodical improvements and strong performance marketing to build Toy Blast into the success it is today.
After the success of Toy Blast, it was no wonder that Peak Games started work on Toon Blast. It’s an obvious safe bet to repurpose the gameplay they already have. King and Playrix have done the same with their top franchises with clear success. Being able to retain players that lapse from your hit games by cross-promoting them to your new exciting games is powerful.
But why is it that Peak Games, the last developer to have found success with the “pure” saga model, opted for a radically different design in Toon Blast?
Why are top developers are abandoning the pure Saga model?
There are 2 key reasons for this.
Reason 1: Facebook doesn’t matter
The biggest shift that has changed since Candy Crush Saga first came out is that friends within games, especially through facebook connect, have become decreasingly important.
For one, facebook connection has gone steadily down since 2012. Players are less likely to connect their games, even when games offer big rewards for connecting. While socially connected players tend to retain longer (they see their friends progress) — players are less and less likely to opt-in to that kind of peer pressure on mobile. Especially in puzzle environments.
The first factor here is Facebook. Facebook’s strategy dramatically shifted for games after Candy Crush. Instead of allowing games to post spam all over walls and notify other players freely of every small bit of activity, Facebook has scaled down over the last 4 years the impact of facebook connect. They’ve seen the negative impact it has on their user experience, and slowly made changes to avoid games from taking advantage of their platform with spam. Adding to this, they shifted their revenue strategy to ads. Giving free virality to games, cuts into Facebook’s main revenue source. Instead of offering free virality, Facebook has gradually shut down their virality and instead sells the users to publishers through ads.
So with connection rates down and much of the importance of Facebook virality gone, puzzle games, which typically depended on this model to be successful, have turned to other sources to drive new users and retain their players.
For Toon Blast, this means that instead of only allowing players to play together with their friends, they can now join guilds, which are made up of other active players in the game. Instead of players slowly becoming less engaged as their friends drop off in engagement, players are actively pushed to join together with other active players in the game. With Toon Blast, players send lives and earn coins based on how active their guild is. This is obviously taken out of the playbook of Clash Royale and most mid-core games on the AppStore. Many games have had guild features for years, and many have gone deeper with the mechanics. Yet this is a casual matching game — this is a bold choice.
Toon Blast’s addition of clans and guilds is a sign of the times that free facebook virality is gone, and that games can’t rely solely on a player’s group of friends to give reasons to come back and progress in a game.
With facebook gone, developers need to push players to create their own bonds with other players that are active in the game
The standard guild system in Toon Blast accomplishes this.
Reason 2: Events are more Important
The second reason why Saga has been cut from Toon Blast, is Peak Game’s experience with what drives meaningful revenue growth: Events.
If you look back and the timeline of Toy Blast, and what drove the growth of their revenue from 2015 to 2016: it’s a clear focus on engagement events and competitive events.
Looking at how King, Playrix, Wooga and Peak have managed to drive stronger retention in their games, it’s not from adding social features. It has been from adding features to the game that push players to complete more levels, faster. Features like the “Star Chest” in Toon Bast: each star you gain on a level fills up a bar which grows towards a chest. A chest that rewards a player with boosts and coins to help them through tough levels.
Or features like the “Crown Rush” event in Toy Blast: which demands that players complete certain levels before a time limit counts down.
These type of single-player, goal-driven engagement events drive retention and drive monetization in players. Looking at the UI/UX of Toon Blast, now with the Saga map removed, these can now be far more centre stage, and feel far less “tacked on” than the usual Saga Map:
But besides engagement events, Peak Games’ prominent form of revenue growth comes from competitive events within the game. Events which pull players together and ask them to compete against each other for prizes. This is usually just reinforcing the core loop: asking players to progress as fast as they can within a limited time for access to great prizes. Best shown in games like Gardenscapes’ Fireworks Festival:
Engagement + Competitive events are what drove Toy Blasts’ growth, so of course, Peak Games would want to double down on that with Toon Blast. By adjusting away from the simple saga map model, they now have a method to make this far more a part of the core. Mimicking the same UX patterns as Clash Royale, to put events as the core focus for players.
Peak Game’s decision to move Toon Blast away from a typical Saga map UI was a bold choice, but one that clearly is a sign of the times.
- The importance of Facebook has faded to a point that even puzzle/casual developers are leaning on guild-like structures to retain players
- Since events are the major revenue driver for puzzle games, toon blast puts its UI focus much more on events than on the saga progress
With everything in life and in video games, what goes up must eventually come down.
Saga was one of those trends that has been up for so long that many of us were asking when would it ever fade. What would come next. We now have our answer.
Interview with Gram Games on Hyper Casual
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Eren Yanik, CRO of Gram Games. We discussed the Hyper Casual market and how things are going for them with recent games like Merge Town, Merge Dragons, Bounzy and 1010!.
Intro to Gram Games
Gram Games is an interesting company and one that deserves a lot of attention. In the past years, the mobile marketplace has matured to a point where most mobile companies can’t compete as premium nor free-to-play. Some companies have left the marketplace in search of new platforms like VR, some have doubled down on existing franchises in absence of a new hit. Making traditional free to play games on mobile has become increasingly difficult and creatively challenging. Productions now last years on high scoped free-to-play titles, and the success of these games are built upon designers finding ways to retain players for years. The risk of developing a traditional free to play title today has never been higher.
Gram Games takes a bit of a different approach. Gram creates games for “hyper casuals”. Players that aren’t looking for a deep long lasting game, but looking for something fun and interesting to try. Something that’s instantly gratifying and playful. Games like 1010!, Merged! and Merge Town really exemplifies this focus. Gram Games has had a history of launching quality hyper-casual games, growing them to the top of the free charts, and making plenty of revenue from advertisements in these games. They’ve found enough success out of this model to expand their studios from Turkey to London just this year, as well as start incorporating in-app purchases in their strategy with games like Merge Dragons.
One key aspect that separates Gram Games culture from other gaming companies is the focus on innovation through game jams. Promoting that every Friday, teams have the opportunity to prototype new mechanics. This makes sense with their business model: it relies on accessible, innovative mechanics, and production times that are measured in weeks rather than months. There is a low risk and high interest in just trying interesting mobile mechanics out. Very different from traditional free to play.
Interviewing Gram Games
How did you make the decision to start Merge Town? How long did it take to produce Merge Town?
Merge Town first was first developed by building on the merging mechanic we used in our first IAP-based title, Merge Dragons. We thought we could use the simple mechanic, and give the player the experience of clearing the board/progress.
Overall the development effort took a few months, including full development, soft launch, and other tests we ran to see where we could stretch the LTV/CPI figures. Because this was a hyper-casual game using a tried and tested mechanic, we were fairly confident in the mechanic itself, but we had to have a longer testing period (about 6-8 weeks) to test monetization/theme. We tested different options where we started out with one world only, added the second world and used a different number of levels where the players can discover for buildings. We also tested with variations in where the ads were used to arrive at where we are today.
Overall the development effort took a few months, including full development, soft launch, and other tests
When you are doing your weekly game jams, is the video ad integration points already something important you are designing for?
Not in detail, but it is something that is always on the agenda. If the presenter of the idea has not included it in the main pitch, we still ask where rewarded videos will kick in, where interstitial videos may kick in – we need to have a preliminary idea of monetization.
When thinking about Game Design and Session Design for Video Ad Driven games, what is more important — driving Session Length or driving Sessions per Day?
We aim for both! If you’d really have to pick one, it would depend on the type of ad units you’d like to utilize in the game. For example, an average user would see more banner ad impressions on a long session length game, but (depending on where you introduce the video ad interstitials) more sessions per day would mean more video ad interstitials. We generally see that session length tends to be constant over a user’s lifetime, whereas sessions per day go down as more time passes for an average player. You could, of course, introduce other videos (like rewarded) during gameplay to boost video ads through session length, as players watch more rewarded videos in longer sessions. These are different parameters you can play around with to optimize to the highest extent possible while still maintaining player satisfaction.
Do you see Advertisement driven games as eventually overtaking (in terms of daily revenue) the Top Grossing games on mobile?
Not in the short-term, since most of the ads served are for other games that monetize mainly through in-app purchases, so ad-based games operate at the low end of the LTV/CPI curve. But in the long-term, with viewability and performance measurement enhancements, more and more brands will enter the ads business, giving ads-based games the ability to act as “new media”. Unfortunately there is not much public information on ad game revenue figures, but some of them would enter Top 50 grossing games, even today.
There is not much public information on ad game revenue… but some of them would enter Top 50 grossing games, even today.
For advertisements, what integration points have the highest revenue impact? Those that have a higher adoption (% of DAU using it) or ones where users can watch unlimited ads for a small gain?
Adoption rates are generally constant for banners and video interstitials, but can vary greatly for rewarded videos (since they are user opt-in). Generally, there is a correlation between adoption rate and impression per DAU, since the first is a key determinant of the latter. Since adoption rates are closer to constant for banners and interstitials, we tackle more impressions per DAU and CPMs (for which you’d need to work with ad networks and focus on the right geos to optimize). For rewarded videos, we work to improve adoption rates through changes we implement within the game, such as making them part of the core gameplay, giving the player a chance to cast a new spell, ask for new lives/orders for progression and etc. By changing UI, and making it more accessible also helps boost adoption. Once game updates are done, adoption rates end up at a stable place, where you can work to optimize CPMs like other ad units.
Why did you decide to integrate the forced Ad points into Merge Town? There is the obvious UX impact, but does the increased video ads watched outweigh this issue?
This is always a big discussion point before launching any new game. Whenever you introduce a forced ad in a game, you get a UX/retention hit, but a rise in ARPDAU. Optimal points differ from game to game as shorter lifetime does not necessarily mean lower LTV. Some games end up at the more aggressive advertisement end of the spectrum, others less.
How do the metrics compare between Merge Town and Merge Dragons?
Merge Dragons is our only game that does not include ads, whereas Merge Town is the one where we use video and rewarded ads heavily. Merge Town is a much simpler game that uses the core mechanic of Merge Dragons, but there is less of a long-term story associated with it. So you get a higher short-term retention, but a lower long-term retention – that’s to be expected.
Because Merge Dragons monetizes mainly through IAP rather than through ads, monetization is harder to compare. UX is more significant in Merge Dragons, as we aim for higher long-term retention to form a community of committed players.
Idle as an economy has clear benefits for video ad integration. Do you see any other progression systems (ex. Saga, Simulation) that could also have strong ad integration?
For opt-in video ads, I’d say an Idle Game has an easier time finding integration points. This is less true for interstitial video ads, as there needs to be clear breaks in place to use them. This is actually harder to find on idle games, but easier in games with defined sessions or stages (like saga or high score games). As there is some impact on long-term retention, it is harder to use forced interstitials on games that monetize mainly through IAP.
One key aspect that makes Ad driven games work is the fact that they are so approachable, so marketable. During the creative process, how do you ensure what you are creating is going to be so attractive to the mobile audience? Have such a low CPI?
Similar to the way we are testing monetization and engagement, we also test how marketable a game is during the soft launch. Hyper casual games generally have low CPIs, but also lower LTVs than their IAP counterparts.
The key thing to remember when designing a hyper-casual game is the fact that your audience is different from a traditional “gamer” audience. Therefore the mechanics that work on traditional gamers may not work there. For example, certain themes (space, Fantasy/RPG) have very specific, committed segments of gamers that are lower in numbers for a hyper-casual game. That’s why we strive towards very simple, easy-to-associate-with themes in our games (e.g. blocks, buildings).
A hyper-casual game would not go for excessive items, skills, crafting and base building. Certain casual games can use one of these successfully (for example our casual title Merge Dragons!), and mid-core games could employ multiple of them successfully as seen in many successful IAP titles. But hyper casuals would have to go after millions of users, so they should not be focusing on a committed sub-segment, but rather strive to appeal to a mass audience. We constantly test, iterate, and have to “throw out” prototypes where we see this work/don’t work, and always see that mass appeal brings in higher short-term retention, and certain progressive elements (levels etc.) and simplicity can bring people back to play over the long-term (1010! is a successful example of this). What brings people back 2 years after installing a game would be different on a hyper-casual game compared to a mid-core game, thus a less “intimidating” game for a non-gamer could help there. Imagine a player who would have only 1-2 games on their phone, playing from time to time, and don’t play games on their PC. This is a very good target audience for an ad based hyper-casual game, also due to the fact that brands would have a higher appetite to target them.
For more information on Gram Games, Visit Here
How to Design a Gacha System
I recently visited Pocket Gamer Connects in Helsinki and presented a talk on Gacha.
Here is the video of the presentation:
Here are my slides:
Summarizing the Presentation, there are 3 key aspects that are key for making a Gacha system work: depth, width and desire.
- Gacha depth is about ensuring your gacha lasts as long as possible
- The gacha will last a long time until players run out of content (or reasons to pull from the gacha)
- The gacha will last a long time until it feels like a player isn’t making meaningful progress from it
- Gacha depth is critical the more games rely heavily on gacha as its core retention and monetization (ex. all the games copying Clash Royale’s progression systems and gacha)
- The deeper your gacha, the higher your long term retention + max economy spend will be, which are critical for success in F2P
- To know what the depth of your gacha model is, you need to model your max drops. (read here if you don’t know what drops means)
- Build a model using Excel, Google Spreadsheets or code it
- This model should take in key variables which impact the pacing and depth of your gacha:
- How much content you have
- What your duplicates are used for
- Quantity of Rarities, and their drop rates
- Pool Changes (as in adding and removing what content can drop from the gacha)
Using the model you can calculate a graph showing you effectively what your gacha will feel like.
- This should show you clear dynamics of how to increase the # of drops your system can handle:
- Adding Content adds depth, but it depends on what the rarity type is
- Low Drop Rates for higher tier means flatter, more frustrating progress
- Opening up the pool over time means that players can feel like the gacha is “refreshed” and interesting again
- ex. Hearthstone releases new content packs every few months which instantly feel rewarding to open
- ex. Clash Royale opens up the Gacha pool over time to give compelling reasons to spend each time you move up an Arena tier
- ex. Dragonvale opens up new Gacha pool possibilities each time you unlock a new element in the game
- Giving duplicates meaning to your progress (not just converting to dust) adds exponential depth to your gacha system.
- Dust gives players a better baseline of progress, at the cost of progress speed (lowering your depth)
- Duplicates that are required to progress (ex. Clash Royale’s duplicate system) mean that in order to upgrade cards you require sometimes hundreds of duplicates (depending on the rarity) adding significant depth AND making each drop feel rewarding
- Gacha width is about ensuring that your systems put pressure on having a wide collection of content as much as possible.
- Gacha width is about ensuring that players don’t feel terrible after bad drops.
- To do this, make all content as relevant and helpful as possible.
- 4 example features that drive width:
- Loadout Size
- Asking the player to bring in a variety of items into the core battle
- ex. in Call of Duty your Loadout includes a gun, pistol, weapon attachments, etc.
- ex. in Hearthstone you bring in 30 cards, Clash Royale you bring in 8
- ex. in Contest of Champions you bring 3 heroes to a campaign
- you want just enough that collecting matters, but not so many that players can create a perfect team
- Asking the player to bring in a variety of items into the core battle
- Explicit Strengths and Weaknesses
- Element systems are needed to ensure that there is no perfect team, and players need to constantly shift their team around to take advantage of the situation.
- ex. Contest of Champions has 6 elements in their game, plus synergy bonuses
- Element systems are needed to ensure that there is no perfect team, and players need to constantly shift their team around to take advantage of the situation.
- Implicit Counters
- Fostering debate amongst your audience about what the optimal setup for a meta is will drive strong collection.
- The more content the player has — the more they can experiment or be prepared for a shifting meta
- Game Modes
- Including game modes within your game which explicitly rewards players for having a large quantity of heroes.
- ex. Gauntlet mode in Heroes Charge or Galactic War in Galaxy of Heroes: the more heroes you have, the longer you’ll survive, the higher you are rewarded
- Including game modes within your game which explicitly rewards players for having a large quantity of heroes.
- Loadout Size
- Gacha desire is about ensuring that your game’s progress is effectively paced by the gacha content. Players NEED the gacha in order to progress in the game.
- Look at your systems, how important is the content of the gacha to progress?
- How important is Skill? can a player with high skill breeze through your game? will a player with low skill feel like the gacha isn’t helpful?
- Are there mechanics within the game which water down the usefulness of the gacha?
- ex. progression systems on the side of the gacha system which are more important than the content of the gacha
- Look at your systems, how important is the content of the gacha to progress?
These 3 lenses can be used to look into your own Gacha to ensure it will be as powerful as you need it to be.
In the coming months, pocketgamer will post the video of the presentation. I’ll post it then.
Deconstructing Merge Town: The Rise of Hyper Casual
Rewarded Video Ads have been a constant, dominating trend in free to play over the last few years. Starting with companies like Ketchapp and Futureplay, it became abundantly clear that games can drive meaningful revenue from video advertisements, and advertisers can find a captive audience in mobile players. In the last couple years, Video Ads have reached a tipping point. No longer seen as superficial revenue on top of IAP revenue, designing for video ad revenue has become the dominant revenue growth area for free to play companies. Designing for video ads has allowed for innovation in the maturing mobile space that is much needed.
Source: SOOMLA Blog (an excellent source of info on Video Advertising!)
The rise of Video-Ad driven monetization has heralded in a new era within mobile game design. The casual segment has been dominated for years by the Match 3 Saga model with other casual categories struggling for meaningful revenue (ex. “with Friends” style games). Video Ads have opened up these categories because it monetizes on 100% of your user base. Instead of having to awkwardly cram in In-App Purchases into a casual title, developers can monetize off their active playerbase even if they don’t have a meaningful economy with anything to sell.
“The rise of hyper casual” it is called. Summarized here by Johannes Heinze of AppLovin:
“Players of hyper-casual games can be acquired at extremely low rates, so even though CPIs are increasing and gaining traction in the app stores is difficult, developers of hyper-casual games have a lot of opportunities. Hyper-casual games tend to be less costly to make, and users monetize almost immediately since ads are the primary revenue source, meaning that UA campaigns can be optimized early on. Hyper-casual games make the biggest share of revenue in the first couple of days, unlike IAP-heavy genres, where the most active users make the most money over time.” – Johannes Heinze, AppLovin
The rise of hyper casual category is exciting because it goes counter to what traditional free to play games have been moving towards: massive budget, multi-year long productions that are getting riskier and riskier. Hyper casual games are innovative, quick to make, and easy to market when done right.
Gram Games is one of many that successfully capitalized on the hyper-casual trend. Games like 1010! And Merged were quick to make, yet clearly generate more than enough revenue to support the mid-sized Turkey-based studio (now with an additional studio in London).
Gram Games’ most recent launch is “Merge Towns”, a mashup of a puzzle and idle game. The game has peaked at #3 top free downloads in the UK, and is within the top 20 downloads in the US. This game clearly shows the latest innovation in the video-ad driven monetization space and is an excellent guide for newcomers to space. Not only does it have strong proven video ad integration, it also supports an innovative core gameplay. Let’s take a closer look.
Merge Towns at the purest concept level is a Matching game core combined with an Idle game economy.
The core gameplay mimics that of Threes! and Triple Town in that you attempt to combine multiple of the same block to upgrade the square.
You can see above how the core is built. You can drag and drop any piece on top of another piece of its kind. There are no restrictions like Triple Town or Threes. Placing the same tier of a piece (a small house) on top of the same tier will upgrade the house to the next tier (a piece with 2 houses). This carries forward and forward throughout the game, creating more and more intricate pieces.
Whereas the goal in Threes And Triple Town was simply to survive for the longest time possible, Merge Towns is more akin to an Idle game. There are no failure states, there is just optimization of progress. Your goal is to generate pieces — so you can combine them — to make better buildings — which generate more revenue — to purchase better pieces. The core gameplay moves like this:
1. The first step is about generating pieces. Players can do this by rapidly tapping on a button, or by waiting.
2. With the generated pieces, players combine them to upgrade them and make space for more land and new pieces to fall.
3. With the upgraded buildings, these generate faster soft currency.
4. With the soft currency, players can purchase better pieces directly
Overall the gameplay feels significantly more approachable and casual than Threes or Triple Town. For Triple Town, the restrictions on movement and the loss condition make for a far more difficult puzzling experience. Merge Towns feels much more like a new take on an idle game mechanic (ex. Farm Away and Build Away’s core gameplay which is deconstructed here). Instead of simply asking players to tap-tap-tap their way to progress, they’ve added a thinly more involved matching mechanic which feels satisfying to complete.
Players don’t even have to pay that much attention to the numbers, the core gameplay of simply matching the highest tiered object possible works well on its own. It’s not so much a puzzle as it is just a pleasurable action.
What this says to me is that the key part that works for the Idle genre is the metagame and the economy. Clicking over and over again is just a relic of the Cow Clicker days — to innovate in this genre it will be about combining the economy of and idle with interesting core mechanics which have significantly more interest than tapping over and over. Merge Towns executes on this. Merge Towns appeals to a wide casual market while having the lasting economy of an idle.
Integrating the Idle Economy
To integrate the Idle economy with a new gameplay took some workarounds by the design team. If players can upgrade buildings on their own, what is the value of the currency generated?
Gram Games answered this by making soft currency the time skip currency. Players can purchase upgraded buildings directly with their soft currency, allowing them to make progress significantly faster as the economy naturally slows down with the exponential nature of the design.
Players thus enter the store as part of the core loop, constantly aching to spend their soft currency to speed up their progression and purchase the highest upgraded buildings possible. It feels like an Idle economy, where I’m constantly making purchases to upgrade the rate at which I’m generating soft currency, but this feels very different. Something that all designers must strive for.
As time goes on, Merge Towns eventually opens up more tiles in which you can place pieces giving a small sense of Visual Progress. Your town can now get bigger and bigger. However, eventually, things do get boring as a usual idle economy does. Eventually the next major upgrade gets farther and farther away.
To keep players engaged when progress slows down most idle games use a prestige mechanic, forcing players to reset their progress in the current area. To make this appealing, games usually offer a permanent progress boost to the player, making their subsequent resets of progress allow them to get farther and farther in the progression. Merge Towns breaks this formula, and instead opts for a more heavy-handed design.
Eventually, new tabs open up on the right which introduces the player to new areas of the game. This offers up an entirely separate town to build up. Their soft currency is completely different, so progress in the first zone does not help at all to progress in the second zone. This is a far break from their idle game roots.
This design decision has some pros and cons.
On the one side, it feels casual because I don’t actually lose any progress — my initial town is still running and I can still keep upgrading it. All the visual progress that I’ve made upgrading my buildings is still felt. It removes the punishing feeling that most idle games can have.
However, it also means that my sessions will get longer and longer. While this game’s design already rewards players quite heavily for being active. As you progress the sessions continually get longer and longer to manage the multiple zones, making sessions more and more exhausting.
But in essence longer session length is what Gram games want. The longer their sessions — the more players stay within their game — the higher their Video Ads watched per DAU. Restricting session length too much actually isn’t in Gram Games favour. So Gram Games made the right design decision, as long as it doesn’t translate into exhausted players.
Advertising strategy always revolves around getting the highest possible adoption and driving as many completed video ads viewed per DAU. More on this in our previous article.
For Merge Town, because their economy is so based on the Idle economy, they didn’t have to reinvent too much. Merge Town mostly takes cues from the dominant idle games like Farm Away and Build Away. However, they do make adjustments to make them work with the core merging interaction.
There are 4 key integrations of Video Ads:
#1 Welcome Back Bonus
Each time a player returns to the game they are greeted with a choice. Watch a video ad to double the soft currency generated while they are away, or lose out on this deal. Just as we’ve written about before, this is a no-brainer.
This integration is great for driving a high adoption. Right from the outset there’s a high adoption integration. Some scarcity + a clear benefit make this easy for a high percentage of your DAU to accept. However because it’s limited, it’s not great at driving a high quantity of views.
#2 Upgrade Rewarded Building
Throughout the game, there are also smaller rewarded video ad integrations which allow the player to upgrade a given reward for the cost of watching a video ad.
These integrations are great at driving quantity of views, since players can utilize them throughout a session without restriction. In most games offering video ad rewards like this without restriction isn’t possible, it floods the economy or gives too much progress away. However in Merge Town, because the economy scales exponentially, a small boost like this actually doesn’t really dent the overall economy.
#3 Double Production for 2 Hours
Similar to Build Away and Bit City (deconstructed here), Merge Towns gives the player the opportunity to double their overall coin production for an extended period of time for a video ad watch. This drives adoption (it’s an incredible deal) but is weak on quantity of video ad views due to its limited nature. This is also more likely for session design over monetization — giving players a compelling reason to come back to the game every 2 hours.
#4 Forced Ads in Flow
Lastly, Gram Games also has Ads forced upon the player when doing certain actions. When entering the shop (which happens multiple times per session) and sometimes when moving between zones (as you progress this happens more and more) you can be presented with a skippable full screen ad. They definitely are annoying, especially since they seem to appear randomly (most likely due to fill rates from advertisers).
Why would Gram Games opt for such a strategy? Isn’t rewarded video ads always better than forced?
This is most likely a strategy to drive the strongest revenue from players that won’t last forever. Merge Towns is a fun game, but it certainly won’t have the same staying power as traditional free to play games like Gardenscapes, Galaxy of Heroes or Clash Royale. But Merge Town doesn’t need to be like this. Not every game needs to be a 3 year epic hobby with clans and guilds. Which is why many of these video ad driven games are refreshing and are easy to market. They have instantly gratifying mechanics that most traditional free to play games wouldn’t utilize. Their design is simple making it easy to pick up and play compared to most free to play games.
On top of this, it allows Merge Town to monetize off the “No-Ad” version. Purchasing a In-App Purchase will remove the annoying ads, making their offers even more enticing for the power players.
So Gram Games’ embraces their shorter retention curve by their aggressive ad strategy. While it does no favours for their retention, they made a calculated trade-off between retention and revenue. If you know players aren’t going to be here a long while, retention isn’t king… revenue is.
By having innovative, instantly gratifying core mechanics, Merge Town has made a game that feels immediately new and different. This game must be easy to market.
By connecting it to an idle game economy they’ve built a game that can last, and drive meaningful integrations of video ads for sustainable revenue.
For game designers in the market, Gram Games have shown that Video Ads and Hyper-Casual games have opened up new possibilities in the market. Now it’s time for us as game designers to adapt and embrace it.