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10 Ways to Retain Your Players
by Mickey Blumental on 01/31/13 06:12:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A long long time ago, before the age of iOS and Android, mobile phone games were pretty crap.

Eight years ago it was a new and growing market and I had tons of fun trying to fit some of the world's biggest game franchises into mobile devices that were about as suitable for gaming as your average microwave. Resident Evil, Need for Speed, Final Fantasy, Project Gotham Racing, Sims - each game genre brought with it new design challenges.

Back then almost all the phone games (that made money) were malformed bastardized versions of current hit console and PC franchises. The hardware was constrained in terms of performance and the clunky phone keys weren't the ideal game controller. Considering these limitations, we made some awesome games back in those days. But if you don't consider those limitations (and why should you), these games were somewhat bleh.

Getting an hour and a half of gameplay for a couple of dollars seemed like good value. In fact, it was an act of mercy, as playing through those games, for the most part, was about as fun as flossing. So it was all about getting the player to finish the game before the "hey look, Resident Evil on my phone" novelty wore off.

Those days are over. Touch screen devices have amazing games. I find myself playing on the iPad more than any other platform. It's not a perfect gaming platform, especially not for games that try to emulate console games, it's the one I'm most excited about both as developer and gamer.

Suddenly getting your customers out the door as fast as you can is no longer necessary.

In fact, keeping players engaged with your game for longer is beneficial for both player and developer. The player develops an emotional attachment to the game and a sense of accomplishment and investment over a long period of time.

For the developer user retention is important for the following reasons:

1. Cross promotion and visibility. Your games can cross-promote each other whenever new games or updates are released, but that is only effective if people are still playing the older games.

2. Most of the revenue in the app store comes from in-app purchases. Monetize your game correctly and wisely and you would have every reason to want people to play your game for as long as possible.

3. Word of mouth. The longer players play your game, the more likely they are to tell others about the game, recruit other players for in-game rewards, blog or tweet about it.

User retention should not be confused with marketing. It's not about getting new players, it's about keeping the players you did get for as long as possible. One of the positive rewards is a boost in marketing, but it is not a marketing strategy in its own right. For example, having an awesome cliffhanger in a TV show is going to ensure many viewers return the next week, but it's not going to get new viewers to tune in right away. On the other hand when people keep hearing how awesome that TV show is, they are more likely to eventually give it a chance.

There are many ways to facilitate user retention. The best one is having a good game underneath it all. Some games are so addictive and fun they don't really need to seduce the player to stick around.

But don't despair even if your game is terrible. Quality is not necessary. Farmville offers practically no gameplay beyond mindless clicking, but it has done a fantastic job hooking players. A bit like a crack-cocaine addiction, only it carries a more devastating social stigma.

Here are super simple ways in which you can increase your game's user retention:

1. Achievements

Achievement whore is a term that was coined for a reason. It can become very addictive to collect these virtual badges with points that mean absolutely nothing to anyone. It's supposedly something that is meant for bragging rights, but in fact nobody in all of existence ever, except you, cares about your gamer score. No one. In fact, the only reason you care about it is because you think others might care too. They don't. Yet, it is still for some reason fun to unlock achievements. Perhaps it is just because people like to feel good about themselves.

Achievements can range from accomplishing extra difficult tasks beyond the main scope of the game - like getting ridiculously high combo in a fighting game, or it can simply reward tedious grinding for performing the same action 1000000 times.

If the achievements strike the player as too difficult or time consuming they are going to give up on them fairly soon, so while it should be a long tunnel, there should always be light at the end. Done correctly achievements can help draw a map for the player that takes them on a longer path through the game.

2. Missions

Missions are similar to achievements, but have a different focus. There are usually only three missions active at one time, replaced with new missions as they are beaten and they almost always reward the player with in-game currency and rewards (coins, experience points, etc.). Missions are especially effective in endless games as having three different active missions changes the focus of the game and adds variety to each session. It is usually accompanied by a progression ladder that gives the game structure it would otherwise lack.

A missions system kept me playing through games like Punch Quest, Zombie Tsunami, Into the Dead and Jetpack Joyride far longer than I would have otherwise.

Into the Dead

3. Upgrades

Upgrades are an artificial way to make the player better at the game. Suddenly you get further and score better, but it's not necessarily because you honed your skills to perfection as much as the fact that you bought in-game upgrades that improve your stats and overall make the game easier. Why bother trying to shoot a duck with a small gun when you can use a heat seeking rocket launcher instead? Or a nuclear bomb? The player needs to invest a significant amount of time to grind all the currency needed to buy all the upgrades. This is also a good opportunity for monetization as you can offer lazy players a shortcut and offer the upgrades faster for real world money.

Upgrading is a basic concept lifted from the Role Playing genre and tweaked to fit more casual games, especially endless games. Together with the missions system, it's another way to offer a sense of progression and development when you're in fact still playing the same two minutes over and over again.

Two games with very addictive upgrade systems are the endless runners One Epic Knight and Jetpack Joyride.
One Epic Knight


Jetpack Joyride

4. Daily Rewards

Tempt your players to log into your game at least once a day. They might not even play the game beyond loading it and claiming the rewards, but it's a great opportunity to flash any news about upcoming updates or perhaps other games you're about to release - or just flash obnoxious ads in their face. You grab the player's attention for a few priceless seconds, so you had better put it to good use.

The problem with rewards is that if you give the players too much you break your virtual economy and if you give them too little you insult their intelligence (it's worrying how many games do the latter and actually get away with it). A good solution is to create a growing reward ladder that increases every consecutive day of logging in, or alternatively offer the player a scratch card with a good chance of winning something substantial - harmlessly scratching the gambling itch at the same time.

Snoopy's Street Fair rewards you with a generous portion of deluxe currency every five days, but only if you keep logging every day.

5. Come Back or the Puppy Dies

Why lure players back with the promise of rewards when you can do it with the threat of punishment? If the player doesn't log in regularly their crop will wither, their pets will die an agonizing death, their wife will leave them and take the kids, their fortress will be invaded and burnt to the ground and all the toilet paper will be used up.

"My fake veggies have withered... :-("

If your game succeeds in compelling the player to visit on an hourly basis, giving up on their social life, responsibilities and sleep, you are going to be a very rich person.

Though a lot of good all that money is going to do you in HELL.

6. Regular Updates

Once you train your players to expect regular updates, they will look forward to them. Many times players like a game, but they have no idea if the developer is still supporting it.

There are clever ways to let players know that new content is on the way. 1000 Heroz promised players a new level every day for 1000 days until the whole game was released. Angry Birds Rio had empty place holders for future content with a date on each spot telling the players when to expect it.

Angry Birds Rio

7. Seasonal Content

Seasonal content puts people in a festive mood, but also has a delightful sense of urgency to it as it offers unique rewards that expire when the holiday ends until the same time next year. So for a short period of time players are urged to play your game more to ensure they don't miss out on limited time rewards. The rewards are usually cosmetic, which doesn't make them any less rewarding to the target audience that is obsessed with collecting and showing off their virtual items.

And don't forget to update the app's icon to reflect the holiday by sticking a Christmas hat or a jack-o-lantern on it. All the cool kids are doing it, so it must be the thing to do.

Reflecting current holidays and seasons also tells the player that the game is currently being supported by the development team. Just remember to remove the Christmas decorations by March or the whole thing will backfire.

8. Community 

This one is a tricky one to pull off and must be tailored to the type of game you have. It can be a lot of work which does not always recoup the time and effort invested, so tread carefully. Does your game allow your players to show their creativity? Can they share their cleverness with other players? My Singing Monsters invited users to send clips of them singing different parts and then assembled it into a silly little video.

Carmageddon lets players record themselves flattening pedestrians and crashing into other cars and then upload the videos directly to Youtube.


Carmageddon iOS

Snoopy's Street Fair provides you with a photo booth in which you can take pictures with Snoopy characters.

Snoopy's Street Fair

Other games capitalize on the fact that they offer complex gameplay and provide players with forums in which they can discuss strategy and exchange tips.

9 collectibles

Collectibles  could be done cleverly, intelligently rewarding exploration and time investment, or they could be a half assed throwaway. In both cases it's likely to get players to play the game a bit longer than they would otherwise.

If your game world is bland and badly designed adding collectibles for the player to collect is basically just twisting the knife. Looking for hidden treasures in Aquaria is rewarding because it is already fun to explore that beautiful world.


Crackdown is an immensely repetitive and average 3rd person shooter that is saved by a side mission to find hidden orbs. Scaling the environments in search for audio and visual hints for orb locations is some of the most fun I ever had in a videogame.


10. Replayability

If your game is fun people are likely to play through it again. This can be further encouraged by adding more layers of complexity to the game. Offer additional side challenges, offer a medal system that encourages to beat the same challenges with better scores. Unlock hidden harder levels. This is the user retention technique with the best nutritional value that veteran gamers will really appreciate. It only works if your game is good enough and fun enough to justify a return visit.

But seriously, none of these techniques are an alternative to having a good game. There are enough crap games out there. Not all of the listed user retention methods might suit your game, so don't bend backwards like a pretzel trying to fit them in. But give it a thought and see which ones make sense for your game.

That's it for user retention. Next week we'll discuss water retention.

(not really)


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Jannis Froese
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"But don't despair even if your game is terrible. Quality is not necessary."
Sadly that's what a lot of developers in the mobile market seem to really believe. And Farmville is a great example that there is actually a lot of money to be made that way. Just design a game in a way that tries to addict the player in all ways known by psychology, and nobody cares about your horrible gameplay. Best add some social features, or even better, post every five minutes on the player's facebook wall.

I personally find it sad that there is so much money to be made in such a cheap way.

However I like your article, especially your conclusion. Also I totally agree that user retention benefits everyone. Personally I wouldn't ever use methods 4 and 5 however (unless there is a very, very good game design reason). That goes against my moral integrity as a game developer.

Ian Morrison
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The punchline in #5 cracked me up

Jason Bentley
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@Jannis Froese
I agree that 4 and 5 are not actually good ideas.

#4 is against all research into people's actual results with static rewards (it basically kills interest in the task.)

Henrik Strandberg
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This is an excellent article, great advice not just for mobile games by the way. The examples might be apps, but pretty much everything could have been taken out of the "Design 101" book for MMOs, RPGs, Shooters, or, well, just about any game genre.

Jannis/Jason: I think you're missing the point with #4 - compare with daily quests in MMOs, which are interesting and popular as long as the reward is in relation to the effort, but pretty uninteresting if they're not. Now contrast with a brainless boot screen lottery, with zero effort required and trivial rewards. The overall impact on retention is likely WAY better with the lottery (that *everyone* sees and plays), than the raid - which is required to retaining your top 10% of elite players/strongest evangelists. Answer of course is you should consider both, just be mindful they're for different audiences and purposes. (Readers: are daily quests so contrived it's against your moral integrity? More so than 5 days to grow artichokes?)

#5 is no different from having to pay weekly upkeep for housing in an MMO, or log in to a shooter daily just to avoid leaderboard decay. Or MMO raid locks for that matter. There is no game design justification for any of that; pure retention features, and pretty effective at that.

I'd add a few things in the intro though why I think retention is particularly important: first - it's really expensive to acquire new players, so you really want to keep the ones you have in-game in there for as long as possible, increasing chances to monetize and organic growth/word of mouth referrals. Second, most social games stink if you're alone; more players online = better game experience for everyone. Finally... well, not all games need to retain players. Hundreds charges $4.99 and is a pure fire/forget, no retention features anywhere in sight (unless in those scribblings I and everyone else ignored?) - however, the vast majority of games actually become better games because their devs paid a little extra attention to how to make them not just fun in the moment-to-moment, with pretty graphics and fun story - but also sticky.

Mickey Blumental
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Thanks, Henrik! Your additional reasons to consider user retention are great.

Someone else also pointed out to me two other user retention methods I forgot to mention: notifications to remind people to play the game and a tutorial system to ensure you don't lose players early on because they don't get the game.

Henrik's MMO comparison is spot-on so I don't need to add much to it. I stopped playing World of Warcraft BECAUSE their daily rewards system was too effective (and time consuming) and it started to feel like a part-time job.

Maximilian Garling
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"Though a lot of good all that money is going to do you in HELL."

Doesn't matter, consumed lives.

I appreciate the report, darn these dailies force you to keep playing the game (specially in WoW, stupid 2 months mounts)

Matthew Burns
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This is an excellent article Mickey. It has been most useful. Thanks!