The Changing Face of a Successful Free-to-Play Mobile Game: Q+A with Will Luton
Will Luton knows what makes a free-to-play mobile game tick. Afterall, Luton is the author of Free-to-Play: Making Money From Games You Give Away. Released in 2013, the topic of his book was just becoming part of the mobile game vernacular. Fast-forward a few years and Luton’s ideas are on the tip of every industry insider’s tongue.
Today, most mobile games have been designed with systems that let developers entice and monetize new players with the promise of “free”. Still, free-to-play is a market and a monetization strategy that is continually changing. As a student of the topic, Luton has some ideas on what’s changed in the last few years, what’s still viable from his 2013 studies and where the market is headed.
On analytics…then and now:
“We’ve moved away from looking so closely at analytics,” says Luton, “and more towards interpreting our players and the game itself.”
Things like A/B or multi-variate testing are less of a focus now than it was in the past, Luton adds. Free-to-play games rely more on interpretation of player data and game mechanics—especially among smaller studios.
If devs still do this kind of testing, they’ll focus on the bigger things, like icons, rather than in-game button placement (something Luton encouraged in his original book).
What’s more interesting is the growing trend of creating quality from watching players play the game and figuring out what gameplay tweaks can be made to help them get the most out of their time in the game.
The things that really make devs money, like increasing retention, are more likely to be big, systematic changes in the game rather than tweaks to, say, buttons.
On the rise of non-casuals:
There’s been a marked shift in the types of free-to-play games that are popular. More casual titles like Bejeweled and Farmville are being passed up for more mid-core types of games like Clash of Clans, Dominations and Game of War.
“These [mid-core] games are extremely complex,” says Luton, “with features that have deep retention like crafting systems, equipment upgrade systems and research systems.”
These elements are going to increase monetization much more than, as previously stated, the color of buttons. Players who feel invested in a game’s systems are much more likely to come back and become paying players, Luton adds.
On facilitating spending:
“It seems kind of obvious, but developers miss it all the time: You need to have the content available for your players to purchase,” Luton says.
Take a cue from Magic: The Gathering, the real-life collectible card game. Magic players, Luton says, don’t blink at spending two to three thousand dollars per year on items in the game because the makers of Magic provide plenty of options when it comes time to buy.
Translated into the digital world, any successful free-to-play game must include more than simple aesthetic choices or ad removal purchases.
“Building a game that becomes a part of the player’s life,” says Luton, “and then allows them to spend on things they really love, will be what allows [devs] to drive large amounts of revenue.”