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6 tips to boost your free-to-play game retention

Mike Herron offers his game design advice
6 tips to boost your free-to-play game retention
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Mike Herron is Managing Director at ChilliConnect.

Retention is arguably the number one early indicator of potential free to play success.

By keeping new players actively engaged with your game for longer, you can reduce the need for user acquisition costs, increase lifetime value and stand a much greater chance of turning your players into payers down the line.

Here we’ll take a look at some key features to consider when designing your game around retention and how best to implement them.

Click on the link below to begin.

#1: Keep the loop simple

Keep the loop simple

F2P games are structured very differently to more traditional games and the most successful tend to focus on one or two core mechanisms whilst automating or simplifying the rest.

Look at the upper reaches of the App Store charts and alongside the obvious simplicity of Match-3 puzzlers you’ll find games from Kabam, Supercell and MZ that, while more complex, can automate processes like resource production and battles yet still make them feel rewarding to the player.

Variable session lengths

As well as keeping the loop simple, you must also structure it in a way that is conducive to short play sessions.

Mobile games are often played in parallel with low-intensity activities like watching TV, as well as when players have a few spare moments between other activities.

Players will often be interrupted so it’s important not only to allow for variable session lengths, but to allow the player to interrupt and restart as required without any detrimental effect.

The benefits of this approach can be seen in titles like the hugely popular Clash of Clans, where multiplayer is kept asynchronous and battles limited to a few minutes in length.

#2: Make sure your players are progressing

Make sure your players are progressing

A reward that feels earned will always trump a reward that feels free and whilst this mantra often leads to the dreaded “grind”, the most successful mobile titles all have some sort of progression system to unlock levels, perks, options and story.

It helps to not bombard the player with too many options at first on mobile, giving players a set of short-term objectives to keep each session simple and keep the sense of progression constant.

Hearthstone introduces cards and perks gradually in its opening hours, constantly giving players opportunities to try new things but stopping short of overwhelming them with options.

#3: Use positive re-enforcement

Use positive re-enforcement

It goes without saying that it helps if your players feel good when playing your game and there are a number of positive re-enforcement strategies you can employ to ensure they get this buzz.

  • You played the core loop several times? Here’s a bonus!
  • You spent money in-game, take this prize!
  • You play every day? Enjoy our daily challenges!

Candy Crush Saga gives players a bonus each time they level up, refilling their energy meter to encourage them to keep playing until they hit the next level.

Gacha gains

Elsewhere,the gacha system that helped Puzzle and Dragons bring in more than $2 billion in revenue is now becoming more popular in Western titles after previously being confined to Asia.


It’s a form of positive re-enforcement that has proven controversial due to straddling the line between gaming and gambling, but is now often implemented in a less ruthless manner, with modern gacha titles such as Fire Emblem Heroes disclosing the odds and percentages throughout.

#4: (Carefully!) consider negative re-enforcement

(Carefully!) consider negative re-enforcement

As much as we want our players to feel good, fear of loss can be an even more powerful driving factor and players often react more strongly to losing what they already have than to potentially gaining something new.

  • If you don’t return to the game the crops will rot.
  • If you don’t defend and upgrade your base, people will steal your resources.
  • If you lose the battle, all rewards accumulated till now are lost.

Handle with care

A negative reinforcement can have an ever greater impact once the player has invested himself into the game, but these mechanisms must be handled with care as too often they can become “punishments” that result in unhappy and frustrated players.

One such example is the crop withering mechanic used in Farmville, the principles of which are still often used in more current games like Clash of Clans, but with less damaging consequences.

#5: Keep updating

Keep updating

F2P games are run as a live service and a game that stays the same indefinitely will soon lose out in an increasingly hyper-competitive marketplace.

Regular updates and new content such as items or bonuses and timed events are all examples of ways in which keeping your game fresh and relevant can keep players coming back for more.

New experiences

Endless runner Subway Surfers may have been released back in 2012 but still releases “world tour” updates which set the game in a new location every single month.

This approach of always offering something new has helped make the game an ever-present in the US top 100 grossing charts ever since release.


#6: Make multiplayer matter!

Make multiplayer matter!

Multiplayer is one of the best ways to keep players coming back, but especially in the usually asynchronous world of mobile multiplayer, gamers want to feel that the end result of competitive play represents a genuine measure of skill, not an outcome of chance or game design.

The Elo system is a system of (near) zero-sum point exchange and is one used across the games industry from Game of War to FIFA.

Competitive players

Players earn points from each other by beating the other in battle. This point exchange between players of different progress levels is made ‘fair’ by transferring more or less points depending on the player’s existing score differences.

If a player understands that their score or skill rating is a true measurement of their abilities, they will be far more likely to invest more time in protecting and improving it.

Supercell’s titles prove to be highly effective examples of Elo in action, with Clash Royale generating over $1 billion in revenue in its first year of release.