The Free to Play Game Design Bible: Creating a Successful Mobile Free to Play Game


What does it take to reach the top grossing charts? This is a question every mobile developer has asked, and very few actually have the answer.

There are no silver bullets, no magic formula. Building a game that has wide appeal, pulls in millions of players, but also has the depth to keep players retained for years and monetize them throughout is incredibly difficult. Yet this doesn’t mean that there aren’t ground rules for winning on the App Store – quite the contrary.

The fundamental difference between a free to play game and a premium product from the design side is that the goal of a free to play game is no longer to have a short, self-contained experience. Instead, it’s about having a product that will keep players playing and paying for years.

You need:

Strong long-term retention: a game that keeps people playing for years, not just days

Strong monetization: Aspects of the game that players can purchase repeatedly over those years

User Acquisition budget: deep pockets to spend on marketing

To be able to get the volume of users necessary to drive significant revenue (you can have a great f2p game that has a strong $/user, but if you only have 1,000 people playing, you’re not gonna make enough $).

We cover this in depth in our GDC presentation, “In it for the Long Haul” — all about why and how games create long term retention.

GDC 2015: In it for the Long Haul
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GDC 2015: In it for the Long Haul
In Design
Adam Telfer

The bottom line: A fun game is not enough. To succeed in free to play you need fun that lasts. Free to play games can only effectively run if you can retain a large user base of players, and can monetize them over time. If your systems aren’t deep and don’t last, you can’t sell anything because players will reach the end of your game too quickly, and your top players will leave feeling like they’ve “completed” your game. This is the reason why games like Candy Crush have thousands of levels, and the reason why PvP games typically dominate the F2P market.

However, to beat out your competition you need to know the basic formula that makes F2P work:  Your game’s LTV must be greater than CPI.

Accelerate UA Spend

LTV: Lifetime Value. This is the amount of money an average player will spend throughout their entire time playing your game. This is a reflection of your retention curve (how long players will remain in your game) multiplied by your game’s ability to monetize over that curve. To increase: retain players for longer and/or monetize on that experience better.

CPI: Cost per Install. This is the average cost marketing must spend in order to push a customer all the way until the point of installing and opening up the game. This number is heavily dependant on marketing as well as the theme, premise and art style of your game. How costly is it to acquire a player that likes your game enough to install it?

Optimizing these two numbers is the only way to success with Free to Play games. To beat your competitors, you need a higher LTV or a lower CPI.

As a small developer, how can you make this equation work?

First off, you need an amazing game. That’s not an easy accomplishment, but must be the base for making the LTV vs CPI equation work. A great game translates into strong engagement and retention, which is the baseline for a competitive LTV, but retention is only useful if you’ve got strong monetization. If you’ve nailed a healthy LTV (over $2), the best approach is to start looking into smart ways of acquiring users.

CPI is all about building an appealing game – creating a game that is unique, has wide appeal and a beautiful brand can definitely help drive CPI down. As a result, don’t underestimate the value and effort it takes during production to create a something new or unique.  You’re likely not going to find this on your first attempt, but game design is a process, not a performance, you’ll learn as you create.

Defining how to succeed in free to play is not a simple task. We’ve attempted to break things down a bit in the following articles:

There are 3 ways to win on the Mobile AppStore (Part 1)
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There are 3 ways to win on the Mobile App Store (Part 1)
In Industry & Market Trends, Top Posts
Adam Telfer

There are 3 ways to win on the Mobile AppStore (Part 2)
Related Read
There are 3 ways to win on the Mobile App Store (Part 2)
In Industry & Market Trends, Top Posts
Adam Telfer

Title Source Complexity
In it For the Long Haul Mobile Free to Play
Ways to win on the Mobile App Store: Premium Games Mobile Free to Play
Ways to win on the Mobile App Store: Free to Play Games Mobile Free to Play
Ways to win on the Mobile App Store: Viral Hits Mobile Free to Play
+1 Game Design: A Problem-centric Framework Game Makers
Iteration vs Planning Game Makers
The Strange Attractor in Games Game Makers

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