Deconstructing: Nimblebit – Bit City

The latest release from Nimblebit features the Bitizens and this time they’ve used an idle/clicker/tapper crossed with a city builder in their new release of Bit City (iOS / Android). I’ve been a long time fan of the Nimblebit team, started by the brothers Dave and Ian Marsh back in 2007 but expanded to a number of other key staff. My personal favourite game of theirs was Tiny Tower, but I’ve also played and churned out from most of their newest releases. Pocket Frogs deserves a design mention as it still has one of the best collection/rarity mechanics of any game that I’ve played on mobile. Nimblebit specialises in creating a collecting or simulation experience around common everyday objects.

Bit City’s core mechanic is an endless economic growth game and the aim of the game is to progress through the 8 increasingly sprawling cities to generate the most income per second.

Clickers in General

The clicker or idle genre is one of the more recent but extremely popular free to play mechanics that we’ve seen on mobile. There are some great reasons why the mechanic itself has been present in many large successes such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans or Egg Inc. At it’s core, the loop for a clicker is very simplistic. You’re trying to improve your rate of earning, in order to buy items to increase your rate of earning.


The simplicity of the core loop is both a blessing and a hindrance. The fact that everything you do in the game contributes to making you better at what you do (earning currency) feels very rewarding.

Every action is a positive action.

The hindrance comes when you eventually find the core interaction (tapping as fast as you can) repetitive and boring. In some clicker games, this can happen very fast. So, as a game designer, you eventually shift the player’s motivation from tapping to something that will last much longer. The clicker game genre eventually shifts into a strategy of choosing what to upgrade next. In Tap Titans 2 a player is strategically shifted from upgrading characters to gathering gear, pets or items. All of these have random drops and XP to give much more strategic depth. Upgrading anything feels good, but timing and choice matter.

No one can be expected to be active in a game forever which is where the idle aspect of most clickers come in. While you’re away your game is playing itself, constantly growing your earnings. That way when you come back, a stockpile of cash for you to quickly spend and improve to feel powerful. This happens every time you come back, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 hours, the size of the stack changes but the feeling of reward stays the same.

The genre itself appeals to a certain type of gamer. Those obsessed with finding the most efficient and time-effective way to improve their progress (in the form of earning rate). Sometimes referred to as min/maxers finding 1-2% efficiency in upgrade choice is rewarding as you are progressing. Yet even the casual player feels good, you’re constantly making progress but at a lower rate. If you’re more interested in story and context then you will often not feel as excited about idle games. It is a game for fans of stats and numbers.

Bit City – Context provides content

Idle games began on the web with titles such as Cookie Clicker or Cow Clicker released around 2012-2014. These games were incredibly simple. They drew huge numbers of returning users every day as the objective of “having the highest number” is so clear and powerful for players.


In more recent times games such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans, Farm Away, Make it Rain have re-skinned the mechanic and given a context to the clicking. Context helps with design decisions as you immediately add more depth. Depth provides you with content and that content can better mask the simple stat progression. Player’s decide their goal is to “build the greatest city” rather than to “get the highest number” and this creates a better sales pitch if and when they tell their friends about your game. Context helps you design and it helps you sell, use it to your advantage and don’t neglect it by slapping it on at the end of development.

Bit City provides much more context to the clicking experience by using a city and it’s buildings to provide more visual substance and reference to the core loop. The City Context is a good one, used in multiple genres it’s easy to reference, has great depth and is applicable to people from all countries. Bit City uses this to great effect, but adding Building Zones, Cars, Planes, City Hall and Windmills each contributing to your currency earning.

Clicking = Building

Core Interaction of Bit City

The core mechanic of tapping furiously on the screen has been removed in favour of the idea of building. One must purchase and classify lots so that buildings of specific type are built. Buildings then fill each lot and the large Build button upgrades and refreshes the building on each lot for a small increase in coins per second earning power. The upgrading of buildings is endless and rather than getting stuck in a content farm black hole, the buildings are upgraded at random. Every upgrade levels up the block and each subsequent upgrade adds 1 second to the total time required to build the next block, leading in the later game to upgrades take minutes. Choice of which block to upgrade is removed from the player through randomisation and the player is taught very quickly that every upgrade is beneficial.

This is a very strong mechanic for a number of reasons:

  • Thematically it makes sense. Your city changes with time and you can position blocks in certain areas to make your city look beautiful
    • You may also lock in place any buildings you particularly like allowing the creatives build beautiful masterpieces of a modern renaissance!
  • Choice paralysis is removed because you don’t need to choose what to upgrade and all upgrades are beneficial.
  • Build timers slow down sessions giving people incentive to leave.

As a pacing mechanic, it continues to engage at all stages of the game. This is often one area that other clickers loose me on as in the mid-late game, I simply stop clicking…

City Planning

Simplicity and clarity are always key design decisions for mobile game developers. People spend a few minutes at a time with your game and so everything needs to be clear and make sense in an instant. The choices available to a player in Bit City always relate to upgrades. The most profitable upgrade you can do is buying a new building for your city as each building provides a larger base earning rate. A really nice design feature is the idea of city zoning. There are 3 zones, Residential, Industrial and Commercial. Within this feature is a lot of shallow depth, that is there are a very large number of options and possibilities but as a player, the way they affect the game is incredibly minor. They do not affect the core in any way, they simply provide a route to micro-optimisation, reinforcing the fun of clickers.zoning-bit-city

Each building zone is balanced by providing a 10% bonus or 10% deficit depending on the overall % of zones, this promotes people to build in an ordered manner. At certain times you may want to opt for larger investments in certain zones because both the Mission system and the City Bonus system provide bonus’ specifically based on type of building built. This is a good use of shallow depth again. Most people would not obsess over the minutiae of which building to build, but to really get the most optimisation at each minute of gameplay it might be valuable to invest in specific zones at specific times.

Missions with increasing reward

Another clever design decision is to reward ever increasing premium currency (Bux) by completing missions. Missions usually revolve around building, improving or owning some upgrade or building. mission-system-bit-city

There is only one mission available at a time and they seem to be structured to appear in a specific order. Rather than having a small payout with lots of quick missions to teach people the mechanics, Nimblebit have used missions to give players a longer term goal. The cleverest of these is the ownership of 2 of the same building types i.e (2 Baseball Fields).

Mission systems are one of the classic mid-term progression systems. They provide a steadying hand and a focus for players when options of what to do open up. The best mission systems are usually curated or at least missions are grouped and then provided based on XP level.

The Premium Currency (Bux) are gifted in 10 bux increasing increments. This is risky, as it becomes a significant source of Bux in the mid game. I think the progression is a nice touch but the size of the progression is too high, it would have worked just as well say, 10,12,14 etc. At mission 13 I’m on 130 Bux which is equivalent to $0.13. Each mission can take an hour or more, but sometimes you might complete 2 or 3 in a few minutes. Although it might not seem a lot it lessens the requirement to spend. In the mid-game, it’s most profitable to focus on and perform the mission at hand. Balancing the rewards and spend of the premium currency is definitely one area that Bit City could improve on.

Progress, Profits, Prestige

Modern clickers increase the gameplay depth over time in a number of ways. These usually either increase the speed of clicks (Faster), the value of a click (More) or automating the clicking process entirely (auto). Each of these upgrades has a clear and tangible benefit, they help you gain more currency quicker, give your players a choice: do you invest in yourself being active in the game, or invest in the time you’re inactive?

Each city comes with a set number of plots. 4 for a level 1 city, 8 for a level 2 city etc. As you build more buildings you start to max out your plots. As soon as you have maxed your plots a new city unlocks and you sacrifice all of your upgrades and buildings to start again. This creates a clear goal for gamers and eases gamers into the game via small cities. As you progress the cost of each new building starts to become prohibitively expensive which encourages you to want to sacrifice everything in order to prestige to obtain Keys which will speed up everything in your game for the entirety of your play time.


System Diagram of Nimblebit – Bit City


What’s very pleasing compared to other clicker games is that the speed of progress is managed by a multiple limiting factors. Limits by multiple sources feel elegant rather than a strong single limiting factor. First, the coins themselves slow progress as you can’t build enough buildings, then the plots limit progress on one city as you max them out and finally the cities themselves become prohibitively expensive unless the global tap multiplier is improved by prestiging.

Prestige is very important as it adds ebbs and flows to an otherwise linear progression. Every time you do prestige you suddenly feel incredibly powerful as you race through early content, this is important as rather than having to create more complexity players are re-engaging with the game and reinforcing the simple systems of the game and progressing incredibly quickly. Bit City has created “mini- prestige’s” every time you upgrade to a new city once you have maxed out your plots. With every reset there is a sense of loss but also a sense of growth, getting your players used to this feeling helps them engage with the main Prestige mode.


In the mid to late game idle games, prestige currencies become the main goal in Bit City these are Keys. It’s very important to get the balance and the feel of Keys right. In Bit City, Keys feel underpowered as the quantity of keys provided when you prestige is too small. A user wants to feel progress at close to double the previous rate when they sacrifice all of their upgrades. Doubling up whilst keeping a logarithmic increase in the power curve of costs equates to half the time spent getting back to where you previously were. One you reach your old position the logarithmic power curve kicks back in and really winds back a player’s progress to a snail’s pace forcing them to prestige again.

A player chooses when to jump to the next prestige level and effectively picking at the right time can jump you onto a much more powerful curve. Great game design in this area wouldn’t use perfect logarithmic numbers but would add some randomness and inconsistencies to make it a guessing game for the player to find out if they are maxed out at an inefficient area of the curve.


Time taken to reach a city in bit city.  Prestige levels and number of hours are representative and not factually correct.



It’s not mentioned in mobile how important the user interface is for a game. Especially in these management style games with large amounts of details, getting information across clearly and concisely is a challenge on a small screen. Nimblebit do a number of great reinforcements.

  1. bit-city-star-towerYour key measure of progress is represented as a large central number of coins per second present on every screen.
  2. The build button (the button you click the most) is larger, more centralised and stands out from the rest.
  3. The subtle nuances of the game such as plot size, or building type are reiterated to you when you need the information, such as the quest system (large service)
  4. Before you make a large choice there is always a confirmation screen ensuring you are happy with your decision.


This attention to detail of the user’s journey removes frustration from the game. It allows you to choose where to focus your attention on to complete one or two of the tasks at a time and speed up your progress. A nice font and simple language make it enjoyable to read.

Monetising – Keep a tight grip

I’ve spent $10 so far in Bit City. For that, I got 10,000 bux. Bux are the only premium currency and are used to speedup progress, buy city upgrades that persist through prestige mode as well as unlocking certain famous buildings that provide enhanced bonus’. I feel that this was the point where the game design suffered.

  1. Bux are not a rare currency within the game. You can get 10s if not 100s of bux by completing missions or taping on vehicles that randomly drop bux, as a free player you can often buy a few persistent upgrades. When purchasing these upgrades there is no delight, magic or drama and as a player, all you see is your bux amount slowly draining. Purchasing the unlock of rare buildings was also much the same with a simple UI transition from locked to unlocked within the building card screen.
  2. No early conversion purchase. The Builder in Clash of Clans or World Multipliers in Adventure Capitalist, which immediately are the best bang for your bux! *pun intended…
  3. Gauging the value of upgrades is difficult. For instance, Market Gains for 1000+ bux increases your Bank Savings rate by 1%. This feels minor but would have a huge effect on the earning power itself. Rather than so clearly affecting such a powerful rate, investing in 20% cheaper bank upgrades would have had a similar effect to the player but would be immediately noticeable.
  4. No sense of mystery or delight when spending bux at any point. All bux are spent with a simple click and a UI change.
  5. No random drops. With it’s huge array of buildings creating a clear building rarity scale and then having a random drop element would make every bux much more exciting to spend. Random rewards have spikes of joy, rather than a focussed

I suspect the number of people purchasing bux will be low, simply because the number given out in-game is very high and people can immediately get a sense of what it would be like to have 1000s of them by spending a few hundred that they got for free. Games with great conversion rates keep the pressure on players to want to spend by constantly showing the value of having premium currency to progress. Bit City treats bux too loosely and as such the pressure to get my wallet out is low.

Video Ads – Double Time

I suspect that the game’s primary monetization route would be video ads. There is currently only one method to engage with a video ad through the opt-in button called “Double Time”. The value proposition here is strong, for a short period of time, double everything. Directly doubling the speed of progression is the best feeling for a player because it directly contributes to that core loop. Things that feel great in-game are strongest when they contribute to your progression directly. Clickers, by their very nature, are all about progress and so the reward is clear and easy to feel.

Unlocks happen more regularly I can build more buildings and progress shows a real gain. The upgrade itself is time limited to 10 minutes but with bux can be upgraded to 15 or more minutes. This again is a clever gamble as by getting people to potentially invest in an IAP they then encourage more video views, which if you remember is a key KPI for increasing monetization from video ads.

The major issue here is that there are not more ways to engage with video to improve those views per DAU that lead to more revenue. The 10-minute bonus is strong, but what about a 4h increase in the Bank Savings rate? Watch a video ad to upgrade a building directly would provide so many more places that a user could click the Watch button, increasing its adoption. The classic Double Up bonus for all returning players could be run once every 24 hours in order to highly incentivize at least one valuable video view per day. There is huge scope for expanding video ads integration.

Conclusion – Great Core, Monetization need Tightening

Bit City is a great example of expanding clicker mechanics into new genres. City Building and Clickers make a great match because of the depth in buildings and environment that are available to the team. Nimblebit have done a really good job of pacing the game across multiple cities causing you to have clear evolutions in your progress as well as allowing you to prestige at any time, making it your own decision. The type of upgrades and the thematic choice of upgrades fit nicely, all contributing to a busy and bustling city experience. The UI and UX of the game itself is also neat, simple and clear making playing the game an enjoyable experience.

The game’s biggest weakness will be its monetization. It’s very loose usage of Bux as a reward currency and the fact that players can only interact with video once per session without enough cues from the UI. The value of that video view is high so it should see good usage, but providing your most engaged and active players with more ways to watch would see many more views per DAU.

The games a great addition for the Bitizens and well worth a play!

GDC 2017 on Monetization

As promised, here are the slides from my talk at GDC 2017 on Evaluating Monetization Early.

GDC 2017: Monetization

And here is a link to the slide share for easier sharing:

A Quick Summary:

  • Define Your Core Monetization
    • Monetization’s root comes from a long lasting urge to progress.
    • The most successful monetization mechanics come from speeding up pacing to progress. So adding and tightening pacing systems is the key to improving monetization opportunities.
    • Pacing systems which can be monetized on usually come in 4 forms: Time, Stats, Currencies and Luck. Find where in your core loop you can add additional pacing systems which make natural sense.
  • Ensure your game can scale for years
    • To be in the top grossing you need games which take years to progress, and can withstand tens of thousands of dollars of spending
    • Watch out for red flags in your prototype that it won’t scale:
      • Map out a vision of your progress over years. Do you think it will be enough?
      • Do the mechanics break? How large is your scope of stat upgrades?
      • Do the sessions break? In the mid and end game, are you asking too much of your players?
      • Does your Content scale? Can you effectively produce enough content to retain top players?
      • Does your Economy scale? Does your tight currencies remain valuable?
  • Design & Tighten Triggers for spending
    • Record down for your game the various trigger points you see players spending. Can you add more? How can you tighten these reasons?
    • Triggers Usually come in the form of these 6 forms:
      • Loss Aversion: Protecting what players believe they’ve earned
      • Vanity: Showing off to other players in the game
      • Competitiveness: Wanting to dominate the game or other players
      • Impatience: Wanting to make progress quickly
      • Investment: Investing a small amount early which reaps greater rewards in the future
      • Social: Spending for the benefit of others
    • Which of these triggers does your game have? How do you tighten these?
  • Prototype with Monetization & Pacing
    • Prototype with your pacing & monetization included to avoid misleading fun early in prototyping

Thanks for all that attended, and I hope this is useful for everyone!

Deconstructing Fire Emblem Heroes

Nintendo is the one bright light in the mobile games industry. Finally entering the fray after years of resisting the trend, since last summer Nintendo has launched 3 top grossing titles: Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Nintendo is doing what no other free-to-play developer has done. They’ve broken into a market that many have long assumed to be completely locked up.

But each release has been marked with controversy. Pokemon GO wasn’t developed by Nintendo, and Nintendo only sees a fraction of the profits. Super Mario Run was met with mediocre reviews, and many free-to-play veterans questioned whether the “Free-to-Start” model was the effective system for driving the most revenue and enjoyment from the product. Despite this controversy, Pokemon Go generated revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2016. Super Mario Run has generated $53M, and converts 5% of its player base. No matter your opinions on their approach, these are very impressive numbers.


Fire Emblem Heroes is the first game in the series that feels closest to how free-to-play games on mobile have traditionally been built. It is obvious that this game was built closely with DeNA. This game shares a lot from other DeNA products and many other Japanese F2P mobile RPGs.

So far the reviews are positive for the game, from critics, players and business analysts alike. The game has already grossed more then $5M, a week after launch  and has reached near Top 10 grossing in the US, and is the #2 Top Grossing game in Japan. No doubt it will be another major success for Nintendo.

Full disclosure: I am a massive Nintendo fan boy. Just like most game developers in the industry, I grew up playing Nintendo. I’ve owned every Nintendo console since the NES and have pre-ordered the Switch just to play Zelda on launch day. I am cheering for Nintendo with every release they do on mobile. I sincerely hope that Nintendo continues to operate as the shining star in the industry as a company that continues to deliver incredibly fun, approachable games for the next decades to come.

That being said, I’ve now played Fire Emblem Heroes since its launch, and despite all the praise it’s gotten since launch there’s noticeable improvements that Nintendo will need to make to ensure the game lasts for the long term.

Let’s first take a look at what they did right: How the core of the game is designed.

The Core Loop : Tried & True


The Core Loop of Fire Emblem Heroes is a proven one. Players battle, to gain rewards, to upgrade & collect more heroes. Their upgraded heroes allow them access to more challenging battles which give better and better rewards.

For this game to retain and monetize at its best, the player must always have a desire to constantly collect new heroes, and upgrade as many as possible to their maximum level.

The Gacha

To collect these heroes, you have to use the gacha-based random drop system. Players collect orbs through single player campaigns to eventually start a summon. These summons feel great. Getting a famous character is rewarded with a unique animation that really captivates the feeling of getting something unique & special (Seen below). Nintendo created a great feeling gacha flow.


Summons initially cost 5 orbs. Upon summoning, the player is presented with 5 options, colour coded. As you can see with the image below, the player has 1 red, 1 blue, and 3 grey options. This colour code is coordinated with the types of units the player uses in the core battle.


So the player can be strategic about choosing which colour they want. If they want a player that is of the red type, they can focus their summons on red gachas. Upon summoning, the player is presented with a character, ranging from 3 to 5 stars, depending on how lucky they are.

But Nintendo also offers another aspect to summoning. Summoning gets less expensive the more you summon from the same group. See the above image. After being presented with 5 coloured stones, the 1st selection costs 5 orbs, 2nd costs 4, 3rd costs 4, etc.  So to save substantial orbs players opt-in to grinding for more. To save 5 orbs for every 5 characters you summon, you need 20 orbs initially. An interesting design decision that gives players an extra way to optimize their grind.

Each day players are in the relentless pursuit of collecting orbs so they can summon their favourite characters from the series. Player can gather orbs from regular play. Each time they complete a single player mission, they are rewarded with a single orb. Since the difficulty of the single player missions increases quickly, the rate at which players can collect orbs slows quickly. The game shifts from quick progress to having to train your heroes often to get orbs.

This is a tried and true method of free to play monetization design. Pace the free collection of characters down to a pace that players start to want to spend in order to speed their progress back up again.

The Battle : Simple, Strategic & Stats Driven

What I believe drove the praise of this game was the core battle system. Nintendo managed to take a genre that many have attempted, and make it more mobile friendly than any other turn based strategy game that I’ve played on mobile.

The game’s orientation is in portrait, and the key interaction is just dragging and dropping your unit around the field. It feels immediately intuitive, easy to play while on the go, and I rarely make a misstep with my commands.

image05On top of a core interaction that is accessible, they managed to make the entire experience of completing a battle fit into the Starbucks test . You can complete a regular battle in roughly 40 seconds, a more strategically demanding battle in easily less than 3 minutes.

The battles are usually 4 units vs 4 opposing units, really cutting down on the amount of moves you need to make per battle. Because each map is fairly small, it usually doesn’t take very long for the main action to start. Ultimately these short, punchy battles make for a great “just one more battle!” feeling.

The Strategy

All this being said : simple interaction, small maps, small armies — this game has strategic depth. Based on the fire emblem battle systems that were designed back in 1990, Intelligent Systems (the game developer who makes the Fire Emblem series) has perfected this system over the years. Fire Emblem have been always known for their simplicity & depth. Working very well on mobile through the Gameboy Advance, DS, and 3DS years with stylus touch controls.

The battle system starts with an easy to understand rock – paper – scissors-like system. With fire emblem, its red beating green, green beating blue, blue beating red.


This is easy to understand, and the game gives enough in-game cues when you’re taking advantage of this system. You can expect a 20% boost to your damage when attacking a weaker element, or a 20% reduction when fighting against a stronger element.

From here, the player can start to notice other strategic advantages they can take in battle. Archer & mage units can fire from a distance. Horseback and flying units can move quickly across terrain. Walls & mountains can make being a range unit more advantageous. Units can gain abilities that buff and de-buff other characters. There is a lot of strategic depth here which keeps each battle feeling fresh and collecting heroes relevant.

The Stats


The stats and their impact are all also very easy to understand. Atk is attack damage, which is counter to HP (Hit Points). Spd is speed, which if you have 5 more speed than an opponent, you hit twice. Def is defense, which is subtracted from the opponent’s attack when you are defending. Res is magical resistance, which is similarly subtracted when you are attacked by a magical spell.


Each time a character gains a level they are rewarded with a random selection of increased stats. This allows the actual numbers themselves to stay relatively small and understandable, and means that having two of the same character could mean different stats. Great for collectors and min/maxers.

But if these stats were pure random, you could see how builds could become unpredictable. Because the battle math is so basic (it just uses addition and subtraction), calculations could easily get out of control without Nintendo “guiding” the progress of characters to ensure that the values stay within limits. As such, it is obvious that nintendo has pre-planned the progression of each character from the beginning. While each character can have different stats, they try to stay within a controlled range and by the maximum level each character has the same amount of stat points. So no matter your luck, each character will be equal in theory, but mix/max style players can try to find duplicates of characters to find the optimal build.

But what’s important with the stats is that it supports the core loop. As stated before, the core loop only works if players constantly have pressure to upgrade their characters. This system really puts pressure on the players to level up their units. Being just a few levels under another unit could mean your Defense stat being low and taking a lot of damage. It could mean your Attack stat is just a few points lower than an opponent’s defense stat and thus can’t do any damage.

This system doesn’t leave players with much space to compete at higher levels with their strategic skill alone. They need to level up every character in their team.

Smartly by Nintendo, there is a lot of strategy in choosing who to bring into each battle. You are always given a preview of the opponent’s stat level, the makeup of their team, so you can effectively plan outside the battle who you want to bring.

This level, “Prince of Mystery” has 2 red swordsmen, an archer, and a green mage all at around level 24. I can craft my team around taking advantage of this team’s weaknesses. I can ensure that my team is around level 24 before starting the battle. This feels both strategic & puts more pressure on the core loop: collecting & upgrading a large variety of heroes.

3 Improvements for Nintendo

Overall while the core game and overall progression feel great, after playing for weeks its obvious that Nintendo still needs to fill in some of the cracks to make sure this game can last on the top grossing charts. From playing I noticed 3 issues that Nintendo should consider for their future:

#1 Gacha Drop Tiers & Rates

Nintendo did a lot right with Fire Emblem Heroes’ gacha system. They have over 60 characters in the pool to pull from, adding more every few weeks and each feeling unique and strategic. They paced their orbs so that in the beginning you feel like you’re making quick progress, but as time goes by the pacing slows down substantially.

They’ve also built a system which having a 5 star character means a lot: to upgrade a character from a lower star rating to a higher star rating takes considerable time and effort. So players are more likely to convert chasing after the 5 star character in the gacha than attempt to upgrade them from a lower star level.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-56-pmBut this is where the simplicity of their hero progression system starts to show some issues. To upgrade a 4 star character to 5 star takes 20,000 feathers and 20 badges. To get this type of currency takes weeks of grinding. You can get feathers from competing in the PvP Arena once per week or sending your characters home. But playing for a few weeks I have gained ~4,000 feathers, mostly from sending home 4 star players I didn’t want. To get to 20,000 is a long painful grind.

Players see clearly that to manually increase a single character’s star level is insanely difficult. This system has already seen some backlash from players, enough that Nintendo gifted out 10,000 feathers as part of a social media campaign. So the only effective way to get 5 star heroes means pulling them from the gacha pool — that must be great for monetization right?

That starts to break down when you hear experiences like this:

“…After my first day of play I had assembled a formidable team of five-star heroes, with 12 heroes of varying abilities in reserve…”
– Pocket Gamer Reviews

For myself as well, I have three 5 star heroes on my team, after spending $13 USD and a few days playing the game. I got the three 5 star heroes off of summons I didn’t pay for. I had so many free summons from regular play that it was easy to collect a wide variety of heroes. From these summons, I’ve already got three 5 star characters which helps me steamroll over the single player campaign of this game.

This could just be luck, but it seems to be happening to many players of the game. So I did some calculations:


The drop rate of a 5 star hero is 6%. So every time you spend 20 orbs, you have a 26.6% chance of getting at least one 5 star hero in the pack of 5. After spending 40 orbs, there is a 50% chance you will have at least one 5 star character. Not to mention Nintendo even increases the % chance of getting a 5 star character each time you fail to get one in a summon. Nintendo is specifically designing the gacha around players getting 5 star characters fast.

Getting multiple 5 star characters on your team would be fine if Fire Emblem Heroes had enough pressure built into the core loop around collecting a large variety of heroes, but since the game is so early, this isn’t the case. After you’ve collected four 5 star heroes, you can rip through content and walk away happy from the game. Only the die hard fans — the ones who are here just to collect for the sake of collecting — will engage in the gacha.

5 Gold Stars don’t matter if they happen all the time.

In the effort by Nintendo to make a player friendly feeling gacha, they’ve built a system where 5 star characters are so common that I can reach a optimal team within a week of play.

Compare this to the competition

  • In Clash Royale, it takes months to raise to the arenas necessary to get access to the legendary cards, and from there they drop at such a low percent that it takes months to get the legendary cards levelled up fully
  • In Contest of Champions it takes weeks to collect enough shards for a single 5 star hero crystal that you can redeem in game. 5 star heroes rarely ever drop in crystals collected from regular play.

So for Nintendo, for Fire Emblem to last they have to take a page from Puzzles and Dragons, Brave Frontier and other JRPGs. Introduce more star tiers with increasingly difficult gacha odds. Adjust the balancing for feathers and star progress so that it is feasible to reach a higher tier. From this, a player’s pursuit of the optimal team will take more than a week of play and a small amount of money.

#2 More Interesting Upgrade Path

Layering on top of the issue from the gacha, comes to the Upgrade system. After you’ve gotten the top 5 star character, the effort it takes to build it to its optimal level is too simple and short.

To reach the optimal build of a character:

  • The character must be 5 stars
  • Reach Level 40 by collecting XP or using shards
  • Merging a Duplicate 5 Star for an Enhancement

Each unit has a level cap of 40, which can be reached by collecting enough XP, or spending your crystals and shards. The XP required to level up gets exponentially higher, but for the most part can be completed in less than a week if you’re playing against high enough level opponents.

But to build the absolute best version of a character, you have to take one last step, merge a copy with the same star level.


So to have the highest level 5 star Marth (pictured above), you need two 5 star Marths. This is a very small chance in the Gacha (0.001% per summon), and will obviously take a long long time to do.


However, this gives only +1 level on the character. As pictured above, the character now can have a maximum level of 40+1, rather than 40. This means that the benefit of spending all the time & effort in the gacha to get the duplicate is all for a maximum of +1 to +5 battle stat points. The single level boost is just too low for too much grind.

Compare this to Galaxy of Heroes, Summoner’s War and Heroes Charge. Their upgrade systems have more systems running in parallel and typically have far more requirements to reach the optimal build:


Outlined far more in detail in an older deconstruction, most F2P RPG games have 4 paths to upgrade your character to the maximum. Usually including a random drop gear system at least to make the long path to fully upgrade interesting throughout the development.

The key element that Fire Emblem is missing: If I’m lucky enough to land a 5 star character, this needs to feel like just the beginning. I should want to invest a lot of time to get this hero to their maximum potential.

This is how you ultimately craft strong long term retention in a game which drives long term success on the mobile top grossing charts.

#3 Lack of Content & Social End-Game

Free-to-play, at its foundation, is about retaining players for as long as possible. Long term retention decides your ultimate success, as I’ve spoken about at GDC, and written on this blog.

But just a week after launch, and there are many reports of players reaching the end of content. Many of these players have been moderately engaged and only spent a small amount of money. Below the player spent $40, only on summoning, and reportedly did not even get their final hero team from any of the summons they paid for.


This is a result of generous gacha drops and quick upgrade pathing. Players being able to upgrade and progress through all the content much faster than Nintendo intended.

If Nintendo wants Fire Emblem to continue to deliver million dollar per day revenues for months and years to come, they need to ensure their most engaged players are staying in the game. They can only do that if there is enough content in the game.

The easiest way for a game to lose its audience is for its most engaged players to leave because they feel like they finished all the game had to offer.

Fire Emblem has 9 Chapters + a Prologue containing just under 150 missions. With the pace that fire emblem lets you get through these missions though, these 150 missions, each lasting between 40 seconds and 3 minutes makes for a very fast progressing game.

The side-effects of this fast progression is that Nintendo needed to add very aggressive pacing blocks to their single player campaign. The majority of complaints from players have to do with the stamina cost of levels skyrocketing early. By the mid-game, each battle costs roughly 10 stamina, and your stamina meter remains at 50. With battles being so short and most battles being fairly trivial to win (since you’re grinding), this feels frustrating by the end game. Nintendo had to do this to prevent players from training & beating the campaign missions too early. If they had created enough content however, this wouldn’t be the case. If they added additional modes to the end-game to pressure players into collecting & upgrading more heroes, this wouldn’t be the case.

Comparing this to Galaxy of Heroes, Contest of Champions, Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier is completely different. Each of these games offer more modes, more content, and their pacing is structured around playing rather than waiting. On top of this, these games slowly introduce a more and more engaging social end-game that takes the pressure off of producing more content. This way even if a big spending highly engaged player reaches the end of content early, they are actively engaged in guild wars or reaching the top of a leaderboard.

Fire Emblem heroes has the tools to do this. With the success of Fire Emblem Heroes, they plan to release 2 chapters (10 levels) each month. They plan to introduce a new PvP mode in the near future. They have an arena mode, but it is paced too slowly (3 attempts maximum per day). They can create a guild-based meta-game that drives players to use their friend lists. Adding more additional modes which ask the player to have a larger collection of level up heroes would be the key to driving stronger long term retention.

As it stands, players can progress through content too fast, leaving players with too few reasons to come back to the game.

How Fire Emblem can Last

Overall this game is a massive financial success for Nintendo. Based on the rabid fan base so far, Nintendo has proven that based on the brand loyalty alone their fan base can reach the top of the mobile gaming charts. They have an impressively approachable and addictive core battle that has the strategic depth to last for years.

That being said, Nintendo have an opportunity here not just to make a quick buck off their IP. They have the opportunity to build a long standing success that will pass Super Mario Run in revenue, potentially even Pokemon Go in the future.

For this game to stay on top, Nintendo needs to act quickly to ensure this game can retain its top players.

  1. Add more star tiers to their Gacha pool, so there’s a reason for players to summon new characters for years
  2. Add more scale and depth to their upgrade system, so it takes longer than a week for my top characters to grow to their optimal forms
  3. Add significantly more content to challenge players to collect more heroes and upgrade their team to the highest level.
  4. Work towards a deeper, social end-game which keeps players collaborating and playing for years.

These 4 things are possible within a short amount of time. While the audience is still engaged in the game Nintendo can increase the scale of the systems and add significant content. Galaxy of Heroes and others took months after global launch before they launched a social end-game. Puzzles and Dragons added star tiers long after launch.  Many of the JRPGs in the genre have interesting modes and competitions that push players to collect & upgrade a large set of heroes.

Nintendo has the time & ability to turn Fire Emblem from a million dollar release to a billion dollar mobile hit.

Mobile Monetization 101: The First Steps

“We should have thought of monetization from the start”

Countless free to play games have launched and failed, and this is a constant regret many game teams have. They should have done more in the beginning to think about monetization. They should’ve been thinking a lot deeper about how their game was going to make money instead of just making a good game.

Learning how to evaluate monetization early is difficult. Most resources talk about clever monetization mechanics (ex. Pricing of in-app purchases, limited time offers, VIP systems, sales, etc.) but rarely is there much information about how to tell if your early prototype has what’s necessary to eventually monetize. The common remark to monetization is that good monetization can only come from good retention, as if just making a fun game will inherently make your game monetize. Anyone that’s launched a free to play game knows this isn’t completely correct.

The truth is that monetization and retention are strongly interconnected and you need to think about both as early as possible within your game. Monetization is not something that you can stumble into if you want to compete on the AppStore. 

But before you start obsessing over your in-app purchase prices and before you start obsessing over sneaky monetization mechanics  — you need to figure out how your game is going to survive as a free to play game. The best way to set up monetization in your game is to ensure that your game has 3 things:

  1. A clear definition of what you are primarily selling
  2. Assurances that your systems will last for years
  3. Ways of pulling the player to the end game

Completing these 3 steps will allow you to set up your game to monetize to its full potential.

Step 1: What are you Selling?

Every top grossing free to play game primarily sells the means to progress.

Progress is the strongest driver of monetization. The top grossing games don’t sell content (ex. DLCs), they sell progress towards an end game.

Progress comes in many forms and sizes. It could mean moving forward on a map. Progress could mean building up a farm. Progress could mean collecting and upgrading characters. To start, you need to define what progress means for your game.

Let’s take a look at 2 games, and what progress means for them:

Candy Crush

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Candy Crush’s core progress is to move forward on a map. Candy Crush focuses all of their monetization mechanics to help progress on the map. They sell boosts, extra moves or charms which all help you progress.

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Galaxy of heroes is all about upgrading & collecting heroes. Each game mode promotes the need to have a large collection of characters. As the game progresses, it demands an increasing upgrade level of your characters, requiring you to progress. They sell the means to progress faster: currencies to train your characters, the ability to fight battles instantaneously, and loot cards to unlock characters faster than your normally can.

Every top grossing game has a long path of progress which is the main focus of their monetization.

You must define the core progress for your game. What do you see players building over a long period of time?

Just to give more examples, here are some of the Top Grossing games’ Core Progress:

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For each of these games, this core progress is the central focus of their monetization strategy. All monetization mechanics give options for the players to speed up their progress.

When you’ve discovered what your core progress is — what the key central point you are going to be selling — then you can start designing monetization mechanics that speed up the player’s progress in interesting ways. You can start designing mechanics that pace the player’s progress giving you opportunities to monetize.

But there is one important step you need to do before you can start creating monetization mechanics: you need to ensure this core progress will actually last. Otherwise you won’t be selling progress for very long.

Step 2: How long will it last?

What you are selling must be able to scale for years.

It doesn’t matter how many monetization tricks you’ve got in your game. If what you’re selling won’t last, you won’t be successful.

This is usually where systems begin to show weakness. Not many systems can last for years. Many of the games that we all loved growing up were great games, but only lasted 10 or 20 hours before the system would crack. These games aren’t well suited for free to play.

An example of this happened when I was working on a racing game prototype. The core of the game was to race against an opponent to the finish while avoiding obstacles.

Our core progress was upgrading your car (similar to CSR Racing). The player collected loot from races to purchase upgrades which would improve their car’s stats. To progress in the game, the player needed higher and higher stats. The key stats to progress were: Speed, Handling, Acceleration and Boost/Nitro. As we tested out the game, we noticed: the more you improved the Speed stat, the harder the game became. The player’s cars were moving faster, which meant that the obstacles were becoming harder to avoid. We had a very limited cap that the speed could be upgraded to without demanding way too much skill from players.

With this cap in mind, we tried many things to avoid the issue. We made all obstacles travel with the player based on the player’s speed to make high speeds more manageable (instead of stationary obstacles, we switched to cars driving with the player on a highway). We adjusted the opposing AI’s speed based on your upgrade level to ensure that each upgrade was necessary. We tried many weird tricks to get the system to work, but all of them fell apart and were making the gameplay feel confusing.

In the end, the cap on our speed stat wasn’t high enough. In order for the game to be successful we needed the cars from the beginning of the game to be much, much slower than the cars at the end of the game. If we wanted the end of the game to take a months to reach, yet each upgrade along the way to feel meaningful to progress, the “Speed” stat was just not going to work.

This was a signal that our system wasn’t going to scale, and our game was not going to work as free to play.

Compare this Speed stat problem to a regular RPG system with Health and Attack. This system can scale almost infinitely.  A 200 HP monster when you have 20 attack is the same as a  200,000 HP monster when you have 20,000 attack. Attack and Health counter each other, allowing both to grow infinitely large. Speed had no counter stat, which made its growth eventually constrained. This is why many free to play games rely on an RPG system of Health vs Attack (ex. Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Best Fiends, Puzzles and Dragons, Summoner’s War) this simple system can scale.

Look at your base gameplay — do the stats scale?

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Health vs Attack: The infinitely scalable system that many of the top free to play games use.

So how do you apply this to an early prototype? How do you ensure that your system will last?

2 basic tools you can use to evaluate your scalability:

  • Model your economy
  • Test your game in the Beginning, Mid and Endgame

Model your Progression

Modelling your game’s economy and progress early is an easy way to give you a sense of just how much content you need and how to pace your game.

Exactly how to do this is a very deep topic that I’d love to cover some day. If you don’t have the skillset on your team to model your economy with a tool like Excel, then you need to get someone who can. Without modelling, it is impossible to see just how you’re going to get your game to last.

But what should the goal be? How long should your game’s progress last?

10,000 hours or $10,000 dollars: that’s how long your system should last.

This of course is just a high level estimate (and easy to remember) but this is a good goal to have if your looking to reach the top grossing charts. Looking at the top games today, they easily go beyond these numbers. Games like Clash of Clans support purchases larger than $10,000 in their games. In comparison to Game Of War, this economy can support a purchases by a single user of over $120,000. These are insane values, but to give you a sense of just how long lasting and resilient these economies are. There is a lot of room in these economies to monetize.

With this model, you have a great tool to show what it will take to last. Compare your model against the models of your competitors in your genre and you’ll have even greater benchmarks for how much content you will need. If you want to beat the competition, your game has to last longer.

Test your Beginning Game, Mid Game, and End Game

When you’ve modelled your game’s economy, you will have a sense of what the beginning game, mid game and end game’s content will be. From this, you can build a prototype which can showcase how the game will feel in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. With this prototype you can ask questions like:

In the beginning, do player progress quickly?
Is each progress step desirable and felt as required by the player?
Is this beginning of the game still engaging or have you taken away too much of the depth?
Is the gameplay easy to get into?

In the midgame, has it sufficiently changed from the beginning game? Does it feel like the game is getting deeper?

In the end game, does the game still work?
Is the amount of skill required to succeed still feel achievable to all of your player types?
Is the end game sufficiently complex and deep? How does my end game depth compare to my competitors?
Is there a dominant strategy, or do you see your end game players debating over best choices?

There are many more questions to ask to ensure the depth of gameplay is there at each stage, but these 3 prototypes can give you a better sense that progress is happening and that your game will work at these 3 stages. This will ensure that the progress that you will be selling is desirable, and that the end game is worth reaching.

Using a model and effectively testing your game at multiple stages in the game is the basics of how to prove your game can last. When your game can last, then you now have the necessary base of a game that can monetize. Now it is time to start driving desire to spend.

Step 3: Why do I care?

You’ve got a core system that can last for years, and a clear definition of what you are selling. All that doesn’t matter if players have no desire to progress.

As free to play games, we are selling virtual items. In reality these things have no value. Our job as game designers is to create systems which create value for our virtual items. When our virtual items have value, we are much more likely to monetize.

Making virtual items valuable is not easy, but thus far most free to play games have focused on 2 ways to do this:

  • Visual progress & teasing a long term vision of the end game
  • Social Pressure

Visual Progress & Tease Long Term Vision

The majority of free to play games use visual progress cues to create a sense of value as you progress through the game. Visual progress can come in many forms, but it must showcase your progress thus far as well as tease future progress. Showcasing your previous progress gives value to your work so far. Gives you real value for your playing time or payments in the past. Teasing the future content gives the “carrot on the stick”. Shows players that there is lots more to come, and hopefully entices them to discover the new content still awaiting them.

The 3 most used examples of visual progress are:

  • The Saga Map
  • Base Expansion
  • Character Collection

#1 The Saga Map

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The Saga map in puzzle games clearly shows the visual progress of the player. Each time you complete a level, you progress on the map. At any time in the future you can scroll through the map and feel good about the progress you’ve made.

At the same time it clouds over the future worlds and hints at the mountain of content yet to come, giving you a reason to continue playing to discover the content.

#2 Base Expansion & Building Progress in Clash of Clans

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Clash of Clans and almost every game like it with a city/base-building component has this to create greater visual progress to the user. Looking at an early level base in Clash of Clans to a late base really shows just how far a player has come. Each time they enter the game they are reminded of their progress. Each base also feels completely customizable and your own. You decide where each piece of wall goes. This creates more attachment to the visual progress — this is your own base.

On top of this, players are teased each time they preview a greater opponent. They can look at the top of the leaderboards and be tempted by how amazing the bases look near the end game.

#3 Characters in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

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Looking at your character list in Galaxy of Heroes is the best way to see your progress and be teased of the future content.

You can see each of your characters and how amazing they are. This showcases their value. Just below your characters, you can see transparent versions of the characters you have yet to unlock, enticing you of the future progress pulling you along.

These 3 examples show how the top grossing games use visual progress to create value and desire. Each are also tightly tied to what the core progress is for the game itself.

When your core progress is visual, players are much more likely to feel like it is valuable and worth playing or paying for.  When progress is teased, players are much more likely to stick around to see what happens.

Social Pressure

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Want your game to monetize? Then make sure players are engaged socially within your game!

Deep Social mechanics is the key to building a game that retains the longest and monetizes the strongest. When a player is actively engaged in a lively community of players, then the content in the game is far more valuable. As a player, I am far more likely to spend . We’ve already written a lot about how strong community features in your game will heavily influence how well you can monetize:

  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

It is not a coincidence that MMOs like Habbo Hotel (pictured above) monetize so strongly with a core interactions that are quite simple. The deep social interactions that are possible in Habbo Hotel pull players in over a long period of time. Because of this strong social connection, players put a much higher value on looking good, showing off their progress and helping others. As a result players play longer and pay more money.

So when you’re thinking about monetization, make sure that you have truly defined what is going to be pulling players through the game on the long haul. Ensure you have strong visual progress mechanics that show off the player’s progress and tease the late game. Ensure that you have social mechanics which give real value to the content that you’re creating. If players have minimal desire to progress, then it doesn’t matter what monetization tricks you have — they won’t play long enough to spend.

The Last Step: Capitalize

You can see that Steps 1, 2 and 3 don’t really talk directly about monetization. There’s not much about skipping timers, VIP programs, limited time offers or designing virtual currencies. It’s because all that doesn’t matter unless you’ve got a long lasting game.

This is really why many monetization topics usually say “think about Retention before you think about Monetization”. What the real crux of it this statement is: don’t think about monetization unless you’ve got a system that can last. Obsessing over monetization mechanics before you’ve got a long lasting system is futile. However if you’ve nailed a long lasting system that can keep players engaged for a long time, the remaining steps to monetize become significantly easier.

When you’ve got a long lasting system, you can start creating mechanics that pull the player faster forward in that progression by paying or playing the way that you want them to. With enough desire to reach the end game, you can drive players to spend repeatedly to reach it. This is where true monetization begins.

More on the ways to capitalize on your long lasting systems coming soon!

Further Reading:

Mid Core Success: Monetization, Michail Katkoff :

Dimitar Dragonov, Freemium Mobile Games

Critical Mobile Monetization Concepts, Joseph Kim

The Tower of Want, Ethan Levy

Deconstructor Of Fun: Galaxy of Heroes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Miska Katkoff of Deconstructor of Fun to put together a deep deconstruction of Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. It’s now posted on Deconstructor of Fun:

Galaxy of Heroes is a deep game that took strong reference from Heroes Charge. I go into a detailed analysis into all the systems in the game in this article. Some takeaways:

  • Every system in the game is built around supporting their core loop of upgrading and collecting heroes
  • Their deep, complex upgrade system allows players to have strong short-term and long-term goals
  • Galaxy of Heroes supports incredibly long session lengths. You can play this game for hours each day without the game forcing you to leave and without making a dent in its content

For further details, check out the article!


Also, some good news about those interested in my GDC Presentation on Soft Launches: it’s available in the GDC Vault (Vault Access is required)

Soft Launches in 2016

This year at GDC I spoke about soft launching games. A deep dive into how Wooga looks at soft launches, and specifically what you can expect in terms of Cost, Learning and Growth.

Click Here to Download the Slides and watch here if you have GDC Vault Access

Summary & Takeaways:

  • Soft Launches have changed significantly
    • Soft Launching in 2011 was much easier — especially because of the free traffic through facebook virality
  • Soft Launches are more important than ever
    • Wooga learned this the hard way with Agent Alice. You have to validate your LTV & CPI before launching if you want to launch with an effective marketing budget.
  • Soft Launches aren’t cheap
    • Futurama and Max Ammo’s costs were around $250,000 for 5 months of soft launch. This is user acquisition costs only.
    • Wooga Soft launches now typically take 4-6 months, this is mainly to give time for both Validation (ensure LTV > CPI) and Growth (attempt to improve metrics before launch).
  • You can use Low CPI Countries, but only to test, not to validate
    • Don’t use the KPIs ( LTV, Retention ) in your Low CPI test markets to validate your game. Wooga has found that these KPIs change unpredictably from country to country. You can only predict a hit in your key markets (usually Sweden and Canada)
  • Retention is more influenced by Marketing User Quality than Features
    • Don’t just look at your day-to-day or week-to-week retention to see the impact of your changes. It’s very easy to inflate or deflate your retention profile by adjusting your marketing mix (what % of your users come from which acquisition source).
  • The only way to see real impact of your changes in Soft Launch is to A/B test
    • If you NEED to see the real impact of features you need to A/B test. But because Soft Launches have such low DAU, the time needed to get real results from this will drag your soft launch timeline out.
  • Growth of Retention is SLOW
    • We at Wooga typically see an average growth of our retention numbers by 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points per month (1d/3d/7d). So if your retention numbers are far off your target, its going to take a long time to get them up.
  • Large Retention Jumps are usually improved with: Funnel Optimization, Tutorials and Difficulty Adjustments
    • Large Retention jumps don’t typically happen, unless your game is fundamentally broken.
    • The largest bumps in retention that Wooga has seen have come from 3 things:
      • Funnel Optimization: looking for where users drop out
      • Tutorials: optimizing and paring down the tutorial
      • Difficulty Adjustments: looking for frustrations and smoothening progression
  • Growth of Monetization can be done
    • We at Wooga have seen that monetization can grow, especially during post-launch.
    • So if you’re LTV CPI equation is not working only because of monetization, you can still grow monetization during post-launch

Soft Launches will not save your game.

If you don’t see strong metrics during Soft Launch, then don’t expect the Soft Launch to give you the clear learnings of how to fix and grow your game to be a hit. Costs are high, Learnings are difficult, and Growth is slow.




Deconstructing Clash Royale

Supercell has dropped a bomb on the mobile gaming market. Their new game, Clash Royale, soft launched just as 2016 got started. They have soft launched in only 8 countries, but this game is already a sure success. Supercell has already committed the game to a global launch in March.

The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada
The game is already Top 3 Grossing in Canada

Supercell has made a lot of smart choices with this game. They have a fun, competitive, forward-thinking game that exemplifies what modern free to play design should feel like. Previously I’ve talked about just how difficult Multiplayer on Mobile is to get right, yet here Supercell threw out the rulebook. They’ve now proven that Synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile. Many have even gone as far to say this is the first successful MOBA on Mobile.

Whatever you want to call this game, it will be a success, and it did so while breaking many of the rules.

But enough praise for the game, today I’d like to talk about my favourite subject when it comes to mobile game design: sessions. Specifically, where I think Clash Royale succeeded in creating session design that pulls players back each day.

They did so with 2 clever systems:

  • Free Chest Systems
  • Chest Slot System

Overview of the Game

Clash Royale is a card-based real-time strategy game. The best way to explain it is to watch:

Player use cards to spawn various units to attack opposing player’s towers. The goal is to destroy their towers before they destroy yours. The strategy is in choosing when and where to place your cards: to counter your opponent’s units, and to ultimately press the opponent enough to destroy their central tower.

Overall it is a hectic strategic game that lasts only a few minutes. It feels like a real-time hearthstone match mixed up with the clash of clans gameplay.

The Core:
  • Winning a battle will reward you with chests (in various ways)
  • These chests give you random rewards: gems, coins, and random cards
  • Cards can be upgraded with enough duplicates of the same card, and enough coins
  • To win, you need a variety of Levelled up cards
The Goal:
  • Players want a collection of competitive cards
  • To win as many matches as possible
  • To get as many crowns and trophies as possible
  • To reach highest Arenas
  • To reach the top of the leaderboard (With your clan or by yourself)

The loop is focused on collecting and gathering cards. Not unlike Hearthstone. The big modification though is the ability to upgrade these cards.

Comparing Clash Royale to Hearthstone, the ability to upgrade cards changes matchmaking and progression quite a bit.

To upgrade a card, you need to collect duplicates as well as coins. The real key comes in the rarity of the cards. Some cards are inherently better than others (ex. the Giant), and since they are RARE or EPIC, they drop a lot less than others. So not only do you want to collect these rare cards, you also need to collect a lot of them to fully upgrade the card.

This strong desire to collect and upgrade your cards is what drives all systems in the game. Each session is about attempting to get as many chests (and thus cards) as possible. To collect cards the fastest, the player has to play by the rules that Supercell desires to drive retention and monetization.

#1: The Free Chests System

To analyze Clash Royale’s sessions, let’s start with the most obvious system: how Clash Royale starts and ends its sessions.

For any game, good session design is marked by two things:

  • You’re rewarded each time you come back to the game
  • The game quickly gives you a short-term goal, that can be accomplished within that session, or at least within a few sessions

This is usually accomplished in most games by a few things:

A Rewarding Start:

Good sessions always start off with a instantly rewarding mechanic. Most games aim to have a collection of resources each time you return or a Daily Reward System. This gives the player a good feeling instantly after starting up the game.

Rewarding Start

Short Term Goal:

But having an instantly gratifying mechanic isn’t enough. The player must quickly form a goal which will drive the player further into the game. They need a goal which asks them to engage in the core gameplay.

This dynamic is usually created by a Daily Mission system or wanting to use up all Energy.

Session Goal

Clash Royale creates these 2 dynamics with 2 systems: A free chest every 4 hours, and a crown chest after collecting 10 crowns.


The free chest system marks the beginning of your session: you come in, open up your free chests. It feels rewarding just to come back.


Secondly, the crown chest. To open you must collect 10 crowns from opponents. This gives me a nice short term goal. Even if I am far away from ranking up, I want to collect 10 crowns so I get the crown chest. Realistically this goal can be accomplished in 1 session, or at least within a day.

This is perfect for driving a strong session length. A clear goal as soon as they’ve opened up the app. Something that the player feels good for accomplishing.


This chest can be opened once per 24 hours, which gives a strong daily goal for players. Players wanting to get the maximum number of chests come back each day and play enough matches to collect 10 crowns.

These 2 chests, which take up a small portion of the UI, incentivize strong sessions per day and strong session length.

#2: The Chest Slots System

Secondly lets look at the Chest Slot system.

Each time you play a round, if you win (score more crowns than the opponent), you will receive a chest. This chest is randomly chosen from Silver, Gold or Magical. Each chest takes time to open: 3h, 8h or 12h. You can only open 1 chest at a time, and to restrict things further, you only have 4 slots to store chests.


No other game on mobile has used this pattern for pacing players. This is the first I have ever seen someone attempt something like this. Instead of pacing the players through energy or construction timers, they went with a system that limits the rewards players get. Players can play as often as they like, but in order to progress and upgrade their deck, they need to pace themselves.

This system can only work if they know that :
#1: players won’t grow tired of playing their game… no matter how much they play
#2: their matchmaking and card upgrade system can prevent players from progressing into the higher leagues too fast

#1 is no easy feat, but I believe they accomplished it. Clash Royale is a game, like Hearthstone, that has a shifting meta, no clear answers. Every battle feels different, especially because its synchronous multiplayer.

#2 is based on the big change they made over a pure Trading Card Game system. Because you can upgrade each card, eventually the player will be confronted with decks that are stacked against them. No amount of skill will be able to defeat a deck with higher level units. Because of this, players will eventually need to play the chest opening game. There’s no avoiding it.

Matchmaking aside, what about the overall feeling of the sessions?

This system fulfills the goals of Flexible Sessions. Rather than blocking the player from playing the game, they ask the players to be smart about how they spend their time.

But what about having to come back every 3 hours to clear out a single chest? Why not allow for chests to be opened up automatically? Opened up in queue?

My guess is that Supercell knows the pain that the chest slots creates, and this is intentional for retention and monetization purposes. Players have to organize themselves to hit all their timers. This uncertainty of hitting their Chest Timers drives players to come back, and pay to speed up the timers when they know they won’t be able to return optimally. I know for myself this chest slot system has converted me into paying to skip timers.

But regardless if you’re chest slots are full, the player can continue to play, which really is what drives the flexible sessions. Even if you’ve filled up your chest slots there is a lot of productive things you can do in the game:

  • You can continue to play and push as far up the leaderboard as you can go with your current cards
  • You can continue to collect crowns for the Crown Chest
  • You can donate cards and request cards from clan mates
  • You can chat and read messages from other clan mates
  • You can watch other battles from around Clash Royale (and be teased of late game content or tempted to speed up progression…)

So although the Chest system is restrictive, its not nearly as restrictive as a straight up energy system. And having this “soft” restriction allows highly engaged players to opt-in to leaving the game when they feel smart about it.


Supercell have a big success on their hands with Clash Royale.

They crafted strong sessions with 2 systems:

  • A Free Chest system that gives rewards just for arriving and setting a strong session goal
  • A Chest Slot system that effectively paces players without energy

This base of strong session design is driving strong retention and monetization. I don’t expect Supercell to change much as this game moves towards global launch. I expect that they are mostly focusing on making their end game deeper and more competitive. This will drive the game even further up the Top Grossing charts, and drive even stronger long term retention. This game will be on the charts for a long time to come.

Overall Supercell clearly have opened up new doors with their designs. It shows that synchronous multiplayer can work on mobile, and energy is not needed to pace players properly. Lets see whether this ushers in a new “Clash of Royale Clones” or developers can apply these design lessons to new games on mobile.

Addendum: Making the First Purchase

From my post last weekend on “Making the First Purchase“, Jun Otsuka, Wooga’s Head of Studio in Japan, made an interesting discovery. While giving a starter pack is a smart decision, sometimes this can have unforeseen consequences.

On November 6th for Mixi’s Investor Relations meeting, they discussed why their sales trend went down for Q2 2015:

From Mixi's Investor Relations :
From Mixi’s Investor Relations :

They reported a downward trend due to existing paying users of their massive hit Monster Strike taking advantage of the beginner’s pack. They added a starter pack (a High Conversion Item) to the game which was meant to incentivize the first purchase. This pack was also meant to get new players ranked up quickly so they could join the mid-game, where most of the users were competing.

The pack contained for $5:

  • A guaranteed 6 star monster (would usually cost $50-$80)
  • 10 Monsters to Fuse for XP
  • 5 Gems ($5 worth)

This pack is seriously high value, which is a huge incentive for new players. As a result, they had the benefit of increased # of paying users. However, as an unforeseen consequence, because the deal was SO good, existing users found ways to take advantage of this deal, which killed the regular In-App Purchase economy. This resulted in lower overall bookings for Monster Strike.

This just serves as a warning for developers looking to create a great first purchase. Ensure that this pack’s economic impact is controlled. It must be limited in use, otherwise you can end up in a situation where existing players are only purchasing this conversion item, rather than spending on the real purchases you intended.

Thanks again to Jun for pointing this out!

PS. If you’re at SLUSH this year in Helsinki, I will be there! Contact me on Twitter or via Email.

Free to Play Monetization: Making The First Purchase

When a player first starts a new free to play game, they have very little intention of spending money. No matter how good your game is, no matter how good your brand is, it’s unlikely that players are willing to drop money soon after starting the app. There’s a period of time where players wait and experiment before buying their first item.

Usually during this early time, heavy monetization should not be your main concern. When free to play first began on mobile, the common approach was to throw monetization in the player’s face immediately. Developers would do whatever they could in the first session to convert players. This has changed.  Modern free to play design puts much more importance on being generous with currencies and content from the first session, and pushing for monetization only after the player really has tried out the game. This method results in players playing longer, and more likely to spend more often through their lifetime with the game.

But there’s an obvious concern here. If you’re being so generous with currencies and content in the beginning, how can you monetize effectively in these early stages? Is there any way to get players to pay early without making them turn off the game? Yes!

With smart design, monetization does not impact retention. More likely, strong monetization actually improves your retention. After a player has dropped their first dollar in a free to play game, they are more likely to stick around. Especially if you make sure that their first purchase feels good.

That really should be your goal: A great feeling first purchase.

The High Conversion Item

A great feeling first purchase is commonly referred to as the high conversion item. It is a virtual item or a mechanic which is likely to incentivize a player’s first purchase.

The first example that comes to mind of a high conversion item is the “Double Coin” boost in Endless Runner style games. Every game play after a player has purchased this boost will give double that amount of collected coins. It’s a single purchase ($2) which can only be made once, but is permanent unlike most In-App Purchases. Any engaged player will see it as a great deal and be more likely to spend their first dollar on the game with this purchase over the regular currency purchases.


So how do we create this type of mechanics for different genres?

It’s actually quite simple. The optimal components of a high conversion item are:

  • High value to the player
  • The value pays off over time (only if the player is engaged)
  • It’s limited by either time or use

High Value

If the item you are selling is not desirable, players won’t convert. Players want to feel smart about making that first purchase, and are unlikely to fork over cash unless they feel they are getting a great deal.

But creating the feeling of getting a great deal is easy when you think of common pricing strategies. The easiest for showing value is Price Anchoring. Ensure the player has been shown the “usual” value of gems and items, but offer an option which is clearly lower than that. This will create the feeling of a deal.


A great example of this is Kabam’s Contest of Champions. In the first session, the player is constantly brought into the crystal vault and shown the regular price of crystals. They are also shown the value of heroes and currencies during the first session. The player’s value and price have now been anchored. After this is in place, there is a starter pack with tons of currency and a guaranteed awesome hero (Deadpool) to get you started. They have hinted at the value, and clearly shown that this is a low price. This is a high value purchase for the player.

Pays off over Time

But just creating a “on-sale” pack of regularly purchasable items is not the optimal way of asking a new player to make their first purchase. The best conversion items also aim to drive the player to play more. To do this, the value of a conversion item must only pay off over time. Instead of giving massive value upfront (ex. a bunch of currency that can be spent quickly), the player should have to play and engage with the game in order to see the purchase’s true value.

Giving too much upfront can mean that a paying player will spend all the currency quickly, feel like they have “beaten” the game, then leave. Instead, asking the player to engage in the game because of their purchase can turn a monetization mechanic into a retention mechanic.

Monthly Jewel Purchase. Spend a little, get a lot. But only if you come back daily!
Monthly Jewel Purchase. Spend a little, get a lot. But only if you come back daily!

The best example of this is Heroes Charge monthly card or COLOPL Rune Story‘s monthly jewel. A player can pay a small amount of money to receive premium currency over a month. In order to collect it, the player has to come back each day. This builds investment in the player. They paid the money, they have the opportunity for massive value, but this value can only be unlocked if the player is engaged.

Aim for your high conversion item to only unlock its true potential if players commit to returning to your game.


The last tactic of a high conversion item is about making it limited in time and/or in use.

Just as I spoke about before, the Contest of Champions Starter Pack is a great value purchase. It’s also on a timer — you can only purchase the pack within a set amount of days, which puts pressure on players to make up their mind. This pressure increases the conversion rate.

But also the conversion item should be a once-in-a-lifetime type of offer. Limiting the number of times the player can actually purchase this item is important. Especially since this item provides such high long term value, you don’t want the player to get addicted to spending only on this item, rather (eventually) have to convert to spending on regular purchases.


A good example of limiting the use is the Clash of Clans builder. It’s a high conversion item. If a player purchases the builder, a player can construct 2 buildings at once, effectively doubling their progression speed and allowing them far less restrictions when their economy is under attack from other players. Builders are very high value which pays off over time. However, the builder hut can only be purchase 5 times, with each stage getting much more expensive. The value eventually has to come in line with the actual costs, and making sure this is capped allows the economy to be effectively balanced.

Ensure that your high conversion item is limited by both time and of use. You want to pull the player to eventually start making your regular purchases.

In Summary

During the early stages of a player’s engagement in your game, it is important to build a High Conversion Item. This item must:

  • Demonstrate a high value to the player
  • The value can only pay off in time, building investment in the player
  • Be limited by both time and of use, to ensure its felt as special, and that players eventually move over to regular purchases.

Using this as your guide, you can create a strong high conversion item that will drive monetization and retention.

3 Tips for Better Pacing

Free to play on mobile is changing quickly every day. The audience is maturing. Their tastes are changing, and now I feel is just the calm before the storm. The stasis that exists on the top of the AppStore can only hold for so long, the mobile audience’s tastes will change, it’s now up to designers to find out how.

As our audience’s tastes change, we as designers have to adapt our designs. We have to find new ways of making old systems feel new again.

Today I’d like to talk about pacing mechanics, and how we can adjust our current pacing mechanics to make them feel better for our maturing audience. Pacing mechanics usually take the form of Timers or Energy systems, and are always ingrained deeply into the core loop of any Free to Play game. Pacing is what prevents players from burning out on content or mechanics. Pacing is what drives habits. Getting pacing right is the key to driving strong long term retention. And long term retention is the key metric for a successful free to play game. But making these pacing mechanics not feel artificial is difficult.

So I’ve put together 3 tips that I like to use when “Re-dressing” pacing mechanics. These 3 tactics can help you rethink how to build a pacing structure so that it feels new, different and more natural to the player.

#1: Add Natural Pacing: Days, Weeks, Months

Sometimes in a game design, you need to add longer timers which prevent players from engaging too much with a feature during a single day. Many free to play games aim for longer timers for this: 4 hours, 8 hours or even 12 hours. In my experience this can feel very restricting.

Instead, ask yourself, can I pace this using a daily, weekly or monthly cycle instead?

So instead of a feature which is available “once per 8 hours”, opting for a feature that is “once per day”. These will allow the player to be more flexible about how they structure the use of the feature, and it feels more natural because they are using their ingrained day/night cycle. It’s easier for a player to commit to coming back to the game once per day than it is to come back in exactly 8 hours. As a result you can pace the players stronger (once per day is longer than once every 8 hours) while it actually feeling better for the player.


Hearthstone (which we’ve covered many times before) is a great example of this. Their mission system employs daily pacing. Instead of using timers, they pace the missions so that there is 1 new mission per day, up to a maximum of 3.

So coming back at any time the next day, you know you will get an additional mission. This is the easiest source of free coins in the game, so it feels rewarding and is tied into the core loop of purchasing card packs. But the key here is the daily pacing. There’s no timers telling the player that in exactly x hours they need to return to the game, instead they have the flexibility of natural day cycles. Have I done my mission of the day?

Days aren’t the only cycle that you can use. Weeks and Months work great at pacing players for very long timers. Hearthstone paces players by month in seasonal competitions. Because each month has a unique card back, this makes it an easy choice for a player to come back to the game, especially near the end of the month, just to get their card back.

#2 Add Animations

Another clever way to add pacing is just to use visual animations rather than timers.

For example, Hay Day had a clever mechanic in which the trader characters delay taking new deals until they’ve left and returned to your farm. After completing a deal, the character would slowly walk/drive away happy, then return soon in the future ready for another trade. This made the pacing make sense, and didn’t need a timer in the player’s face.

Want the next deal? Wait until the trader walks back!

Games with a large world map which you have to send armies around commonly employ a pacing mechanic where the army must take x hours before they reach the location. Showing the scale of the world relative to the unit and actually animating the units along the map helps players buy in to the fact that it takes time for units to reach locations.

Is there any shorter timers within your game that can be visualized by an animation instead of by a timer? Is there any long timer which you can better visualize to the player through animations?

#3 Get Creative with the Cost

The best strategy for making pacing feel better is to get more creative with your economies & systems. Instead of demanding the player to wait for hours for a building to construct, increase the difficultly & cost of building it to begin with.

Most systems force pacing through timers that look like this:

Common Pacing

Fallout Shelter is the best recent example of a game focused on adjusting pacing to feel different and stand out. They chose to do this by shifting the economy. Instead of the pacing of the game through timers for building construction, they’ve focused their pacing only through the initial cost of the building. As a result, Fallout Shelter feels different from most simulation games. It feels instantly gratifying and very rewarding for collecting the coins.

Shifted Pacing


Due to this change, Fallout must increase the cost rapidly to compensate for the lost pacing with building construction and find other timers in the game for players to manage & drive sessions (in this case Wasteland Missions). In the end, this works out for Fallout Shelter, and feels like a very different simulation game from most free to play games.

But increasing the cost before the purchase can take many forms. Cost can come in the form of just collecting currency (ex. bottle caps in Fallout Shelter), or it can be a combination of luck and effort as seen in many gatcha games including Contest of Champions. To pace getting the getting the best heroes, players must grind through collecting hundreds of crystals.

Gacha Pacing

When designing a new pacing mechanic, consider the following:

Instead of guaranteeing the player the reward at the end of a long game loop, try allowing them to engage in a shorter loop, but randomize the progress towards the goal. As psychology teaches us, this type of mechanic will pull players back longer than a strict cost:reward trade off.


There are many more ways to get creative with pacing. But I would always rethink just adding a timer or just adding a high cost to an action if there are ways to make pacing more engaging to the player.

The Bare Minimum : Timers should make sense

If all the above fail, then the bare minimum for having a timer is to make sure that it makes sense with the theme.

Why do all F2P games have building construction? because its one of the few places where timers make sense.
Why do all F2P games have building construction? because building timers is one of the few places where timers make sense.

This is mainly why so many games default to have a city building component, even if it’s a bit of a stretch for the concept. Take Walking Dead: Road to Survival, the F2P game from Scopely recently released. They clearly added the city building component for the ability to pace using construction timers. If they hadn’t had this component, they would have really struggled to find places that make sense to add long timers.

Agent Alice is a good example of a game that struggled with timer design.

Agent Alice v Pearl's Peril (1)

Agent Alice is a recent Hidden Object game from Wooga. Agent Alice made a big risk by removing the city building component from Pearl’s Peril, it’s spiritual predecessor. Due to this design decision, the game struggled to find effective timer design.

Where Pearl’s Peril would use building timers to pace players, instead Agent Alice had to use more arbitrary timers. The timers became different actions that Agent Alice had to take to pace the story. In the example screenshot below, Alice must plan her next move which takes a long timer.

Agent Alice’s timers many times felt unexpected.

This timer is not expected by the player.

The goal of timers has to be to fit into the theme of the game. Each use of a timer leave the player feeling: “Right — that makes sense that it takes that long”.

In another hidden object example, Criminal Case, a game from Pretty Simple, uses a timer when the player has to send anything “to the lab”. This makes sense. In all the crime shows I’ve watched, this was expected by the detectives and the audience.

Sending evidence to the lab makes sense why it takes time.

Keep this in mind when designing your pacing structures. Timers have to make sense in the theme, they have to be expected by the player.

Summing Up

Pacing mechanics can be tough to get right. But slapping timers on every system isn’t the right direction, especially as our audience matures and becomes more sensitive to the mechanics. 3 ways which you can improve pacing mechanics to feel different are:

  • Swapping Timers for Natural Pacing : Once per day, Once per week, Once per month. Use the natural cycles we’ve all been accustomed to.
  • Use animations instead of a timer to make it feel natural & make sense
  • Instead of directly using timers or an energy system, look to find ways to pace by increasing initial cost through currencies, gameplay and luck

And if none of the above is possible, do whatever you can to ensure the pacing actually makes logical sense in the game loop. Building takes time, sending heroes on a journey takes time. These can have timers. Don’t add timers to actions that don’t make narrative sense why they would take time.

Using these tips you can adjust your design to feel less restrictive, more natural, and ultimately serve this maturing audience.