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Many features of top-grossing mobile games help them retain and monetize players, but which are most effective and have the most significant impact? To find out, GameRefinery analyzed the top 200 grossing iOS games in the U.S. and China, using feature-level analytics and market insights from our platform. We then broke down the five most impactful features in mobile games to show you how developers are using them to drive higher revenue.

Gachas in RPGs

Gachas (aka loot boxes) are increasingly common in mobile games, especially RPGs. Gachas tend to be tied into an extensive character roster, and there are multiple types in top-grossing RPGs. One of the most popular is event-based gachas sold with bulk discounts to encourage players to buy. AFK Arena regularly offers 800% value packs for passing specific milestones. Fire Emblem Heroes offers monthly one-use purchases that provide an “orb discount” along with a consumable bonus.

These events can also be tied to festive themes or a new tie-in license character, as we’ve seen with games such as AFK Arena and Assassins Creed.

Above: An example of how AFK Arena monetizes.

Image Credit: Lilith Games

Genshin Impact’s monetization focuses on gachas, where players receive characters and equipment. This RPG monetization mechanic has been prominent with Asian developers and is gaining traction in Western markets. Genshin Impact always has a couple of gachas active with different “featured characters” with higher drop rates. These “banner gachas” are how the game always introduces its new characters through events and more.

Above: The revenue impact of new character gachas in Genshin Impact on iOS in the U.S.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Above: Utilization of gachas in the U.S. (above) and China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Cosmetic items: skins and accessories

Although popularized by shooters in the West, cosmetic items have become a significant revenue source in a variety of mobile genres, such as match-3 casual games. These decorative items augment the game by allowing players to express themselves, and there’s no effect upon the overall game balance. Developers can also build promotions around exclusive, limited-time content.

There are some significant differences in the ways these cosmetic items work across the genres. PUBG Mobile offers cosmetics in the form of character and weapon skins and various accessories, avatar icons, emotes and more. Access to these is often behind various events, battle passes, gachas and other stores.

 

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Above: Utilization of character skins in China (above) and the U.S.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Above: Utilization of decorative character accessories in the U.S. (above) and China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Apart from skins, other games offer players accessories as cosmetic items. One example is June’s Journey, the top hidden object game in western markets. Its core gameplay consists of various hidden object levels, but its meta gameplay is about building your “garden.” Players can develop buildings and decorate the base as they see fit. Events in the game are driven by collecting/acquiring new decorative buildings.

Above: Utilization of decorative buildings in U.S. (above) and China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Guilds

Guild-based features are becoming more popular for retaining and engaging mobile players. Implementations of guild-based features can vary in terms of functionality and degree of sophistication, such as asking for help through more complex co-op guild gameplay, guild competitions, and even communal tasks/goals and gifting.

Guilds have become especially popular in nontraditional games, making their way from RPG’s to casual games such as Homescapes. It first released guilds with chat and simple send/ask lives features to lay down to the foundations.

Then it started adding more guild-related features such as the Team Chest event, a co-op task where guild members collect crowns from levels to add to a communal pool for rewards. It also added a Team Tournament event with similar mechanics to Team chest, but the guilds compete against each other to see who collects the most crowns.

Homescapes has also been experimenting with a “help your teammate” feature where guild members can complete each other’s levels when they’re stuck.

 

Above: More examples of Homescapes’s guild systems.

Image Credit: Playrix

Interestingly, we’ve seen Chinese games with a “double guild” system, which pairs regular guilds with a second, smaller one (usually limited to 10 people or so) to create a much tighter sense of community. An excellent example of this is Honor of Kings in China, which runs such a double system.

Above: The “second” guild system in Honor of Kings.e

Image Credit: TiMi Studios

Above: Utilization of Guilds in U.S. (above) and China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Battle pass

The battle pass is among the fastest-growing features in mobile games in the U.S. and China in the last 12 months. Fortnite ignited the battle pass mania, and then from there, it spread everywhere, even to the match-3 genre, where we see a high utilization of season passes.

Playrix was one of the first companies in the puzzle space to double down on battle passes. The Homescapes battle pass offers various boosters for the player and collectible characters/areas for your home.

In a new twist on battle passes, the Chinese PvP game Battle of Balls recently launched a new event that incorporates co-op and relationship building mechanics into the proven battle pass monetization mechanic. This means players choose a friend and “lock” them into the battle pass, then both players set out to gain progress in the battle and jointly contribute to the same battle pass progression.

Above: U.S. and China Battle Pass popularity over 12 months in the top 100 grossing titles.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Above: Battle Pass Utilization in the U.S. (above) and China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Promotional collaboration events in RPGs

In turn-based RPGs with metagames that focus on character collection, the emergence of collaboration events and characters work exceptionally well together to boost player engagement and monetization. Time-limited special events are essential to the success of these RPGs, and so the sweet spot is the introduction of unique character collaborations around these events.

One such example is Nintendo’s Dragalia Lost, which has had several crossover events. In April 2019, it ran an event with the Fire Emblem franchise that included a story-driven PvE campaign and limited-time characters such as Alfonse and Marth. It then rolled out an event with Megaman in which players could get the Blue Bomber and exclusive equipment. There was also a recent collaboration event with the Monster Hunter franchise, including raid co-op battles and the dragon Rathalos.

Above: Megaman event in Dragalia Lost.

Image Credit: Nintendo

 

Above: Revenue spikes in Dragalia Lost around character crossover events.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Another example of this crossover with Epic Seven and Kizuna, in which developer Smilegate rolled out an event in collaboration with virtual YouTube star Kizuna AI. During the event, players could add Kizuna to their hero roster and receive Kizuna copies as daily rewards.

Above: Kizuna AI event for Epic Seven.

Image Credit: Smilegate

Above: Kizuna event revenue spike in Epic Seven.

Image Credit: GameRefinery

Conclusion

As mobile games continue to evolve, developers will find new and exciting ways to introduce brand new mechanics or simply develop those already there. With social events becoming ever-more popular in mobile games, it will be interesting to see what the next 12 months have in store as the world slowly recovers from the pandemic and players venture outside more.

Kalle Heikkinen is the chief game analyst for China at GameRefinery by Vungle, providing feature level analytics, market insights, and benchmarks for the mobile gaming industry.

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