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Let's Go Whaling - Secrets to Monetizing Mobile Games

Mike Moran

Written by Mike Moran on October 27, 2020, LinkedIn

10 minute read

Table of contents

    whale-hello-there

    Want to make more money monetizing your game?

    It’s time to start hunting whales.

    Most of the money spent on mobile games comes from a small percentage of high paying players - known as “whales”. These are the players who are totally IN LOVE with your game and will spend a lot of cash to enhance their playing experience.

    If you can capture a whale or two and offer them what they want, your hard work WILL pay off. 100% of the top grossing games offer the opportunity to spend at least $1,000 on in app purchases. (In fact, this is likely a lowball figure.) Many games have the possibility for tens of thousands of in-game purchases - a powerful way to generate revenue from passionate players.

    Of course, whales do take longer to convert than players who spend less money. The average number of days to the first purchase for a whale is 18 days, compared to 8 days for a “minnow” - the lowest tier of spender.

    However, the big spenders are absolutely worth waiting for. The key is to design your game so that you can hook and hold onto the attention of these whales and keep them coming back again and again.

    (In fact, the BEST way to make money is to get two of your whales to compete against each other, and offer them the opportunity to have a slight advantage if they pay for it.)

    In this video from Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki 2016, Tribeflame CEO Torulf Jernström discusses the tricks of the trade and shows us some highly effective approaches to monetizing mobile games.

    Here’s a summary of the strategies Torulf covers in the video:

    How to Monetize Players By Bartle Type

    In 1996, Richard Bartle wrote a paper classifying video game players by their preferred actions within the game. This taxonomy is still extremely useful for understanding players and their motivations.

    220px-Character_theory_chart.svg

    When it comes to monetizing your games, the Bartle Type model is a great way to understand why players make in-game purchases. Let’s take a look at the four Bartle Types, and the reasons each type would be likely to spend money within your game.

    Achievers

    This type of player is primarily concerned with gaining points, leveling up, acquiring equipment or currency or any other quantifiable measurements of success within the game. Their main goal is to “beat” the game and be the best - and they will go to great lengths to achieve this.

    These types of players are most likely to become your “whales.” They will pay for convenience, advantages and anything that helps them to progress and achieve more in the game. They are motivated to be the best, so if you understand how to market in-game purchases to them - this is where most of your monetization will occur.

    victory

    Killers

    The “Killer” type of player thrives on competition with other players. They like to pit their skills against a worthy opponent. They would rather fight against another player than a computer-controlled opponent - which is why they tend to favor multiplayer games.

    A Killer is likely to pay for a competitive advantage. So, if you want to monetize their gameplay, you will do well to offer “pay to win” elements to your mobile game.

    However, keep in mind that if you go too overboard with this, you will have an unbalanced game. When the game begins too heavily weighted towards pay to win, people will stop playing because the win doesn’t feel authentic.

    Socializers

    Another type of player is the Socializer - someone who plays the game mostly for the social interaction. They enjoy connecting with other people within the game, chatting and making friends. They are often more interested in the social interaction than the game itself - it’s merely a tool they use to meet others.

    Since Socializers prioritize connections, relationships and communicating within the game - they are most likely to spend money on customizations to their on-screen persona. They may be interested in buying unique skins, outfits, hats and accessories for their character to make their avatar a unique reflection of their personalty.

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    Explorers

    The Explorer is the type of player who likes to play the game for the thrill of discovery. They want to uncover every level, learn all the lore, find out the backstories of all the characters, try out different parts of the game and unearth every easter egg.

    When it comes to monetizing for Explorers, you should be thinking about offering different levels and experience available for purchase. For example, you could create an exclusive level of the game that is only reachable if the player purchases certain gear, or an upgrade.

    You can also try using rewarded ads for your Explorers. They have patience to explore and spend a lot more time in the game, so let them watch an ad to earn in-app points or upgrades.

    How to Monetize Players By Stage

    Another way to approach monetization is to consider the stages the player goes through in the game. Each player goes through a series of stages when they start playing a game. Let’s take a look at the best ways to monetize these players in each stage.

    Hook

    The first stage of gameplay is when the player gets “hooked” on the game. They will play the game for the first time, and it becomes a habit. During this stage, you should be offering them an incredibly enticing deal on an upgrade, equipment or other valuable in-game purchase.

    It should be something that is so appealing that they would be crazy to turn it down.

    The reason for this? First of all, when the player spends money right away when they start playing the game, they are making an emotional commitment. They are more likely to keep playing, because they are already invested.

    Also, the first purchase (even if it is a small one) will break the ice. Before, the player may have thought of themselves as someone who doesn’t spend money in mobile games.

    Yet, you offered them such a great deal that they couldn’t refuse - and broke down that psychological wall. The player now thinks of themselves as a spender in the game - which makes them feel okay about spending more later.

    Habit

    These are the players who are playing through the main meat of the game. Playing the game has become a habit for them, so they will come back to it again and again.

    They are working through the levels and may be willing to pay for extras that will help them progress. This is where you can monetize to them - offering ways to speed up their progress or improve their gameplay.

    If you have already broken the ice during the “Hook” stage, they will be more likely to get into the habit of making purchases within the game.

    Hobby

    The hobby stage describes people who have already maxed out the game completely. They don’t need to buy anything more to help them progress or achieve. So, instead they may be interested in purchasing consumables.

    In this category, there is no upper limit on how much people will spend. If you are offering extras and consumables that will appeal to your players, you can continue to generate income from them for as long as they remain interested in the game.

    Other Powerful Monetization Methods

    Using the Gacha Strategy

    Gashapon (shortened to gacha) is a style of vending machines in Japan that dispense small toys, figurines or collectable cards. The toys, often depicting popular characters in Japanese anime, manga or video games, are released in sets. Each series has a number of special rare figures to collect.

    gacha

    However, they are a “blind purchase.” You insert the coins and simply hope to get the toy or figurine you are looking for.

    By design, this encourages you to buy more. Like a slot machine, there is an element of chance every time you make a purchase, and the possibility you might get a rare and valuable figure.

    This strategy can absolutely be used when monetizing your mobile games. Consider offering random bundles or packs, that may include rare items every now and then.

    When you are using this strategy, don’t forget about the psychological phenomenon which states that the events we hear about more often are the events we think are more likely to happen.

    If your game has collectible items that work on a “gacha” system, it’s important to let everyone in the game know when a player gets a rare item. Make an announcement celebrating the occasion! This will make people think subconsciously that getting a rare item is more likely.

    Focusing On Volume or LTV

    Do you plan to make most of your money from a small group of people spending a lot? (In other words, a few players with very high customer lifetime value?) Or from a large group of people, each spending a small amount?

    This is an interesting question to ask yourself, as it will change the way you monetize the game. When you monetize based on volume, you’ll want to offer small and simple purchases that nearly everyone who plays your game will opt to buy.

    If you choose to focus on your high lifetime value customers, you’ll want to spend more time thinking about how this small segment of your audience interacts with your game and what you can offer that is tailored to their interests.

    Encouraging Your Players to Think Fast

    As the Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman describes in his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, there are two distinct modes of thought.

    thinkfast

    The first mode of thinking, System 1, is fast, instinctive and based on emotion. The second mode of thinking, System 2, is slower, more deliberate and logical. These modes complement each other and you can design your game to encourage one mode of thought over the other.

    For maximum monetization, you want the players to be thinking in “fast” mode rather than “slow” mode. If they have to use the analytical part of their brain, they will overthink the decision and they will be less likely to spend money.

    Instead, try to offer your players immediate gratification in exchange for the payment. They shouldn’t have to think so hard about the purchase. It should be a quick, immediate, impulsive decision.

    Tapping Into Loss Aversion

    Other important principle to understand when it comes to monetization is loss aversion.

    People are more attached to the things they already have, than the things they could possibly gain. In fact, studies have shown that losses have twice the psychological power as gains.

    coin

    To illustrate this, imagine a coin toss. If the coin lands on heads, you will love $100. If it lands on tails, you will gain $150. Many people wouldn’t want to participate in the coin toss, because the threat of the loss looms larger than the possibility of the gain.

    In your game, you can take advantage of this by letting your players find, earn or build up something in the game they feel they own - then threatening to take it away if they don’t pay up. The player will be more likely to pay to keep their gains, as the threat of losing them is very strong.

    Adding Scarcity To Your Offers

    You can also use the power of loss aversion to your advantage when presenting your players with special offers.

    Let them know that there is a special offer that is only available for a short time, and will be going away soon.

    This is an effective way to make the offer more appealing and encourage the player to buy it. You can even create a countdown timer within the game to make the deadline for purchase as clera and apparent as possible.

    Using the Subscription Model

    Another way to structure the monetization of your game is to set up a subscription service. This can be advantageous, as it will encourage your players to keep coming back to the game more often to get the best value out of what they have paid for.

    A great example of this is the builder character in Clash of Clans. If you spend your money on him, you only get the benefit if you keep coming back to the game often. This drives retention and monetization.

    With the subscription model in mind, build things that make people come back to your game regularly. This will encourage them to play more, so they will get the most value out of their purchase.

    Creating A Feedback Loop With The IKEA Effect

    Something else to consider is the IKEA Effect. Essentially: we value something more when we put our own work into it. After all, IKEA doesn’t offer the best quality furniture, but you value it more because you built it yourself.

    ikea

    With this in mind, you can employ a feedback loop that works something like this:

    Trigger - Action - Variable Reward - Investment

    The player is triggered to take action by some sort of motivation. This can be an external trigger, such as a notification. Or, it can be an internal trigger. For example, they have a reason in their minds why they need to come back, such as checking on the progress of something they have created in the game.

    Then, they take action and receive a reward that varies every time (Remember the Gacha technique?). Then, they invest some time into building something - which will be the trigger that brings them back again.

    Afterwards, the cycle comes around to the beginning again and repeats indefinitely.

    Using The Anchoring Method

    Once you hear a price for something, in your head that becomes the value of that item. Any other price you hear afterwards is compared to that.

    For example, when you see a pair of designer jeans with the original price marked $99, selling for only $59. It only feels like a good price because you think you are saving $40. In reality, were the jeans really worth $99 to begin with?

    You can try this when monetizing your game. For example, present an offer to your players for $50. They probably won’t buy it, but that’s okay. You don’t expect them to.

    Later, you will present the same offer to them. Yet this time it will be discounted down to $20. The chances are, you’ll get more buyers then you would have originally gotten if you had presented the offer at $20 to begin with. You have anchored the value of the item you are selling at $50, so the player feels like they are getting a fantastic deal.

    Establishing Social Proof

    Humans are social animals. They will do what others do. This means that you can use social proof as a powerful selling strategy.

    Social proof is especially effective when we see people who are similar to ourselves. We want to belong to the group and when we see others doing something - we want to do it too.

    You can make social proof work for you, by making it the norm to spend money within your game. Ideally, you can create the impression that the majority of players spend money within the game - making that behavior appear to be the socially acceptable thing to do.

    Providing The Right Amount of Choice

    Sometimes, providing your players with too many options can actually reduce sales. This was demonstrated by the Jam Study - one of the most well known experiments in consumer psychology.

    choices

    A team of psychologists set up a booth selling jam at a supermarket and offering free samples. They discovered that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam when they only had 6 flavors on display, compared to when they had 24 flavors.

    This phenomenon has come to be known as the Paradox of Choice. Too much choice can make people anxious and cause them to not choose anything. So, consider providing just enough options to meet the needs of your players, but not too many that you overwhelm them. More options isn’t always better!

    The Core Loop Should Go Through The Store

    The “core loop” of the mobile game is the primary mechanic that defines the game. It’s the element of your game that your players engage with most frequently - the engine of the game that keeps players coming back.

    You can think of the core loop as the simplest level of activity any player will engage with during your game. A well-designed core loop can help your player feel invested, engaged and accomplished within the game.

    When you are optimizing your game for monetization, it’s important to think about how you can work this into the core loop. The core loop should take the player through the store and past any other opportunities for them to make a purchase.

    For an IRL example, think about how nearly every museum is designed so that you exit via the gift shop. How can you employ this in your game and make your store an important part of the core loop?

    Give Your Customers A Positive Label

    Another psychological aspect of monetization to consider is labelling. It’s the idea that when we label people a certain way, they tend to be more likely to behave in that way.

    This can have negative implications of course, but it can also have a positive impact. For example, if we label people as good citizens, they are more likely to behave as good citizens.

    How can you use this within your mobile game? Tell your players they are generous individuals, they have excellent taste, that they support the game developers and that they are one of the most important contributors to the game. They will start to see themselves in this way and their behavior will match this label.

    Understanding Your Players

    When it comes down to it, understanding the psychology of your players is the most effective tool in monetizing your game. It’s crucial to know who they are, why they are playing your game and what is most important about it for them.

    Once you know this, you can tap into the needs, desires and motivations of your players and figure out what to offer them within your game.

    This is how you’ll find your “whales” - and make the most income from these highly valuable players.