Last update: May 2021

5 mins to read - 2021/01/25

How to Design Your F2P Mobile Game for Maximum User Retention

When it comes to mobile gaming, the F2p (free-to-play) has become the preferred monetization model for our current generation of casual, hyper-casual, and mid-core games. 79% of currently released mobile games utilize F2P models. Releasing mobile games that are free to download and play, but whose UX can be enhanced with in-app purchases or subscription services, has proved to be a great way to draw new users in. In theory, monetization occurs by making gameplay so addictive that players simply have to make those extra purchases. Whether they’re paying for tokens to play past a time barrier, or if they’re paying for customized cosmetics or a VIP battle pass, you have to design your game to make paid gameplay more appealing than free gameplay. But there is a sweet spot game designers have to hit. Your game has to be fun to play – too frustrating and players will churn. But it can’t be too fun to play, or players won’t bother buying your in-app purchases to enhance the experience. Read on for some tips on how to hit that F2P sweet spot to maximize user retention.

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f2p mobile game user retention

The Two-Fold Effect of F2P User Retention

As a new developer of an F2P game, the question at the heart of your game is: how much of the game do you offer for free? This will vary from game to game. But essentially you want the free gameplay to act as a taster, to get your players hooked. In their research paper for the Harvard Business School, “The Twofold Effect of Customer Retention in Freemium Settings,” Eva Ascarza, Oded Netzer, and Julian Runge sum up the difficulty as:

“The firm can increase customer retention (prevent customer churn) by offering to customers a better experience for free—and therefore increase the number of active customers in the long-term which is associated with higher advertising revenue. However, by providing more of the free product, the firm may cannibalize customers’ spending on premium services.”

We have looked at games in the past – such as Gardenscapes and Raid – that utilize in-app purchases to speed up gameplay, or to access premium weaponry. And while it may seem like common sense to restrict as much of the game as possible to paid content, Ascarza et al. actually point out that this is a short-sighted strategy. In fact, if you alienate users too early, you are missing out twofold. Not only are you missing out on potential advertising revenues, but you are also missing out on future in-app purchases from churned users who perhaps just needed some more time to get immersed in the game.

First Focus on Retention and Ad Revenues

Churn in the mobile game industry is particularly high, reaching up to 94% after 30 days. So it’s best to focus on building habitual gameplay for your user, before you try to convert them into a paying customer. Many games, such as Gardenscapes, are adept at building this habitual usage by offering easy gameplay to newcomers, which then gets progressively harder. Tools or service that help the player experience fast and easy gameplay such as what they started off with are then available for purchase via microtransaction.

Ascarza et al. tracked 300,000 players of Candy Crush Saga over the course of 12 weeks. As the game’s difficulty increased, they studied how their players behaved in response. Players at risk of churn had the game’s difficulty lessened, which increased short-term play. Interestingly, while this actually resulted in increased customer spending for premium services in the long-term.

F2P Games With Higher User Retention = More Likely to Pay

In their report, Ascarza et al. point out that the majority of players of F2P games never make a purchase. However, those that do tend to make multiple purchases. Thus, a crucial piece of many F2P business models are in-app ads. Most of these tend to last from 10-30 seconds. With this model, user engagement is valuable in itself, even if they don’t make any purchases.

f2p user retention
Image Source: “The Twofold Effect of Customer Retention in Freemium Settings” by Eva Ascarza, Oded Netzer, and Julian Runge

Over the course of their experiment, Ascarza et al. tracked churn levels among players, and the number of sessions played on each subsequent day of the retention curve. With regards to game design, they found that users were more likely to pick up the game for another session on the following day if they had made considerable progress in the game the day before. I.e. if they leave the game feeling positive, like they had accomplished something, they will be more likely to return.

Image Source: “The Twofold Effect of Customer Retention in Freemium Settings” by Eva Ascarza, Oded Netzer, and Julian Runge

Crucially, they find that the greater progress a user has made over the course of a day, the more likely they will spend money at a gate. A gate is the term used when the free part of the game meets the point at which there is the potential for monetization. E.g. when the player runs out of lives and needs to purchase more to continue gameplay… Otherwise, they have to wait for a set amount of time before their lives recharge organically. They can also be strong points for user churn.

Manipulating Level Difficulty

The experiment created a system for manipulating the difficulty level of the levels to maximize player retention:

“If a user had played less than 20 rounds in the last seven days, their difficulty would be decreased, increasing the chances of color co-occurrence by 20% and for special chips by 10%; if the user had played less than 15 rounds in the last seven days, the difficulty would be further decreased, and so forth. If a user had played less than five rounds, or had not played at all in the last seven days, the difficulty would be set at its lowest level, with the chances of color co-occurrence increased by 100% and the chances of obtaining special chips increased by 45%.”

On average, this resulted in an extra day and 10 sessions of gameplay per user, as well as more purchases made.

Use Push Notifications to Communicate Value of IAPs

Without a doubt, push notifications are crucial to maximizing revenues for your F2P game. They are a versatile tool for retaining users and preventing churn, which when combined with in-app advertising means greater ad revenues for your game. What’s more, they are crucial in communicating all the features of your game, and different aspects of gameplay which a player might not have been aware of at first. Use push notifications to direct them to the in-app store, leaderboards, and to sharing their progress on social media, all of which cna get them more engaged in the game. Push notifications are also a powerful way to motivate players to make purchases. Use them to communicate discount codes or direct players to daily sales.

For more information on how to use push notifications to boost user engagement and retention, take a look at our definitive blog post: 30 Mobile App Push Notification Best Practices

If you have any more questions, get in touch with one of our experts. We’d love to hear from you!

To read more about how to use OpenBack to boost player retention and maximize revenues, download our Case Study: Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon App, School of Dragons

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