Are engagement and monetization in mobile games at opposite ends of the spectrum? At times it seems that they have opposite goals. Game designers work tirelessly to create a user experience that immerses players so much, they lose their sense of time. Monetization designers, especially those who work with advertising, work at disrupting and distracting the user experience to the point of displaying full-screen ads and videos.
Once upon a time before free-to-play, players expressed a clear dislike for ads in games. At first many said they’d boycott games with ads, but over time most grew numb and learned to tune them out. But in the early days of free-to-play, players were offered a choice of a free-to-play games with ads, or a pay-for-play version without ads. Now, the most popular games are free-to-play as a means to hopefully reach critical mass.
Minimizing the Friction of Monetization
Free-to-play games are monetized two ways. They serve ads, create in-app purchases or both. Is it any wonder game engagement and retention is suffering? It takes skill to integrate both into a game without disrupting it’s flow. Compare the experience of watching a movie in a theatre vs. at home on television where there is approximately 1 minute of commercials per every 2 minutes of programming. At times it’s a frustrating experience.
A well-designed game monetization strategy feels a part of the original game design. Not a last minute add-on. Organic in nature, it enhances game play with added depth, variety and freedom without punishing players who choose not to pay.
Players have little opportunity cost in downloading a free game. Games can be downloaded on the hunch they might be fun. If it doesn’t suit their tastes, it gets deleted. Some games might actually be fun to play, but ads, in-app offers and friend requests from social networks can disrupt the fragile bond of engagement.
Two games have seemingly figured it out by balancing engagement and monetization. According to app market intelligence site App Annie, the top two iPhone grossing games are Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans. Both games contain zero advertising and they have been at or near the top of the charts for months.
London, England based King (Candy Crush Saga) and Supercell (Clash of Clans) from Helsinki, Finland are schooling the rest of the industry with their titles, with games that engage, retain and monetize users. Few could have predicted their success in genres that seemed as tired as they are old. But players have been hooked for months, in large part to refined game play, great execution, depth, variety and a strong social component. CCS has evolved to become the more monetizable of the two perhaps because of it’s more “snackable” style. It effectively feeds off the frustration and impatience of players, while optimizing the player’s Facebook network. And who says arcade and puzzle genres don’t monetize as well as non-arcade categories?
Monetization intelligence service, ThinkGaming estimates CCS revenues to be over $600,000 per day and COC over $500,000 per day. To Supercell’s credit, they seem to have a winning formula with a second game, Hey Day climbing to the #3 position earning over $450,000 per day. Lately CCS has seemingly brought out the kitchen sink approach to try and monetize on every pinch point in the game. I hope enough is enough. Perhaps just me, but lately I’ve experienced odd and increasing Facebook connection delays when asking friends for tickets at the pay gates. And oddly enough, I never have a connection problem when giving in to pay for the tickets. Of the two, Clash of Clans monetization approach is more organic, less gimmicky and feels less contrived.
All said, CCS maker King.com is laughing all the way to Wall Street. JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Bank of America have been hired to look into a possible IPO.
Easier Said Than Done
Of course these games are the exception and not the rule as this kind of success is rare indeed. Great engagement and great user experience is driving monetization into the stratosphere. Without the carefully designed engagement hooks of these games, these levels of monetization would not be achievable. Less engaging games turn to ads, offer walls and ill conceived in-app purchase strategies for their revenue. When executed poorly it just compounds their problem. Too many of these disruptions flag players that the publisher knows the game can’t stand on it’s own merits, or the publisher is just greedy. Neither generates a warm fuzzy feeling about wanting to play, much less wanting to pay.
The examples above show a successful monetization strategy is predicated by a highly engaging user experience. When players finally convert, it’s their way of showing a level of commitment to the game. Once players convert, prove to them that it’s worth it by providing depth and variety. They’ll return the favor through engagement, retention and LTV (lifetime value).
How can games better monetize without jeopardizing engagement? Feel free to weigh-in on the subject.
To read more about video game engagement, my other posts include: