With high-profile names like Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle & Dragons, and Clash of Clans each grossing over $1 billion in 2014, the mobile games sector appears to be in rude health. This is especially true in Japan, where mobile gaming spend is higher than anywhere else in the world. It’s a fact that Nintendo no doubt noticed as it gears up for its mobile debut after fervently resisting its lure for many years.

With mobile revenues tipped to exceed those of console for the first time this year, Nintendo’s move into mobile seems perfectly timed, but creating and managing a successful mobile game is a lot harder than the headlines would have you believe.

Nintendo is one of the world’s most trusted brands, with a reputation built on clean, upstanding, family-friendly fun. Not that this is a viewpoint I share, but free-to-play is often criticized for being disreputable, coercing, or even forcing unsuspecting players to hand over as much money as possible.

Nintendo has a lot at stake here. Especially as Nintendo won’t be targeting high-value players or whales, instead focusing on offering all players an engaging experience. However, the harsh economics of F2P are well documented, and many developers struggle to balance a great player experience with the monetization mechanics imposed by F2P. As a result, between 40 percent to 80 percent of players never return after their first session.

So, can Nintendo get the right balance?

While no one has a silver bullet that can transform the fortunes of a bad game, a number of game design mechanics can help make sure your players love your game and don’t bolt after day one. The following insights come from studying hundreds of games and millions of players on the DeltaDNA platform.

Make your onboarding process fun, engaging, and rewarding

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft's tutorial is a good example of properly onboarding players.

Above: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft’s tutorial is a good example of properly onboarding players.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

The most important element to building a successful F2P game is providing not just a well-structured onboarding experience but also one that is fun and engaging for the player.

Since the majority of players will not come back after their first session, it’s important that you show-off your game’s best features within the first few minutes of gameplay. If your game has some cool content like a ‘Cloak of Awesomeness’ vanity item or an exciting “Ultimate Flying Zombie Cat” bonus level, do you really want to wait until 90 percent of players have abandoned your game before it comes into play?

Increase the difficulty of your game gradually

The main reason people leave a game because it’s too difficult. It’s hard to get the curve right, especially for casual players. Developers are often the worst people to set the difficulty, as they are too close to the game and have too much experience or inside knowledge on how it works. As a general rule, a game that is too easy will cause less retention issues than one that is too hard. Balance is key.

The reason a smooth difficulty curve is so important is to give players a chance to make good progress and experience as much of the gameplay as possible before they begin to feel challenged. Players enjoy success through progression and taking this away too early will only result in poor early retention rates. Ideally, initial levels should never face the player with failure.


Peggle's rewards include an big celebration at the end of each level.

Above: Peggle’s rewards include an big celebration at the end of each level.

Image Credit: EA

Players need rewards for playing your game; they need to feel good. Rewarding is a way of helping players understand what they have to do.

Victories and rewarding should be made explicit. Nothing’s wrong with being over-the-top, as winning should feel like a momentous occasion. (Think Peggle and its celebrations!)

Making every success and reward fun boosts morale and gives the player a great sense of achievement. It is also important to detail any item, location unlocks or perks in a clear way to encourage use of such items or to direct gameplay.

However, you don’t want to cause an imbalance to your game economy by rewarding too much. Finding that sweet spot is a tough decision for all game economists but getting the players into your game and having fun is vital to success for anyone.

Host repeat play opportunities to increase the longevity of your game

Ideally, a free-to-play game should be endless, as a defined ending limits how far a player can go (and how much money you can make from them). This makes it hard for narrative games to become successful free to play games. Those that work the best are simple, arcade games with no defined end.

Being able to repeat parts of your game is a great way to ensure that your players come back, otherwise they’ll stop as soon as they’ve completed certain areas. Give players a reason to replay missions or levels. Replaying could reward players with unlockables such as a new vanity item, access to hidden missions, or reward them for achieving a higher score.

Many games such as Candy Crush Saga and stunt bike title Trials Frontier have adopted the three-star tiered completion system that offers a beginner, intermediate, or expert completion level. Another approach is to achieve multiple tiers of completion by setting mutually incompatible objectives that require the player to replay the same level several times in different ways. In addition to that, friend leaderboards enhance the replay value, goading players to better their friends’ high scores and have the gratification of being better than someone they know in real life.

Remind players to return to your game with good appointment settings

It is important to have some sort of incentive to pull players back to your game each day. With more and more premium games featuring monetization, even blockbusters Destiny (Daily Bounties), Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Daily challenges), and GTA Online (Daily Objectives) have some sort of mechanic to encourage players to jump on for a few hours each day. Much like F2P, the aim is to give players something to look forward to and something of value to reward their engagement.

The daily bonus is a well-understood and widely used mechanic in F2P, however, it is also beneficial to add extra options such as specific days or hours where rewards are doubled to give real value to returning players.

Providing and announcing rewards that incrementally increase in value for each consecutive day returned is a good way to reward your most loyal players and further encourage them to keep coming back to earn something special. As an example, mobile turn-based JRPG Brave Frontier uses a magic box-type daily reward where players may choose one of nine treasure chests. They could win currency, new monsters, or items. However, the rarity of the items in each box increases each subsequent day the player returns, encouraging them to come back for an even better reward.

Mark Robinson has over 15 years’ experience in data mining, leading consultancy firm Marketing Databasics before cofounding game analytics and marketing platform DeltaDNA in 2010.