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In the past, you needed to plunk down a few bucks to play publisher Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL game on mobile. Not anymore, and that’s led to the game exploding in popularity.

EA’s smartphone division, known as EA Mobile, has released a string of hits. The company has apparently found a formula that works, and few games are better proof of that than Madden NFL Mobile. This football game is free-to-play for the first time in franchise history. Naturally, that has helped the game’s download numbers explode, but it’s also making a significant amount of money.

“It’s an exciting time at EA Mobile,” the division’s executive producer Dan Box told GamesBeat. “We spent the last year transitioning from premium paid downloads to free-to-play live services that evolve over time. The response from players has been incredible.”

Over the last year, players have downloaded EA Mobile’s sports games to mobile devices more than 100 million times. And people aren’t just downloading these apps; they are sticking around.

“In our last fiscal quarter, we’ve seen our monthly average users increase to 40 million in our sports games,” said Box. “That’s a 250 percent year-over-year increase.”

And Madden NFL Mobile, with the excitement for the league’s playoffs at its high point, has found ways to generate a lot of revenue. The game reached No. 4 on the highest-grossing apps chart on iOS during the holidays. That is territory typically reserved for only the best-performing games like Candy Crush Saga, Game of War, and Boom Beach.

Today, Madden NFL Mobile is ranked No. 13 on the revenue chart, according to App Annie. That puts it ahead of games like FarmVille 2: Country Escape, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and Pet Rescue Saga.

EA has found that it can keep players coming back and spending money by offering up fresh content on a regular basis.

“With Madden NFL Mobile, we keep players engaged with a series of Primetime Spotlight challenges that map against what’s going on in the NFL every week,” said Box.

The publisher also maximizes the game’s appeal by targeting events for specific times.

“We schedule events for halftime during games — and see our usage spike when football is on TV,” said Box. “The team works incredibly hard to make Madden NFL Mobile authentic and additive to the way fans consume football content.”

The company does similar things for other brand-related games like The Simpsons: Tapped Out and FIFA 15 Ultimate Team.

Of course, a game like Madden faces some inevitable trouble: the end of the NFL season. While live games and the upcoming Super Bowl mean plenty of people are football crazy right now, that natural momentum will fade away fast after the season comes to an abrupt end. EA is trying to make the most of NFL while it’s still on TV, but it’s also planning for the off-season.

“We have regular updates planned leading up to and after the Super Bowl,” said Box. “Our updates include fresh daily content, new features, and a major refresh for the 2015 NFL season. We use our development plan to focus our team’s efforts, but we also remain flexible to react to what our players want to see in the game.”

One of the things EA Mobile added was full seasons. That lets the most dedicate players stay engaged all summer while the studio reloads for the fall. This also means that Madden NFL Mobile is the last Madden game that EA is planning to release for smartphones and tablets.

“We’re treating mobile as a very different platform to others within EA,” said Box. “We’re no longer thinking about annual mobile title releases. Instead, we’re treating our mobile games, including Madden, as a live service.”

That means EA has a team working on the game every day of the year. Regular updates will keep it fresh, and it means you don’t need to worry about downloading Madden NFL Mobile 16 — because you already got it when you downloaded Madden NFL Mobile.

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