Mobile Mavens

The power and potential of card-collection mechanics for F2P mobile games

The Monetisation Maven ponder trumps and jokers

The power and potential of card-collection mechanics for F2P mobile games

We've been running our Mobile Mavens panel for a number of years.

It's a group of industry experts who discuss the hot topics of the mobile games industry on a weekly basis.

But how about going really deep into one of the key and ongoing subjects faced by all free-to-play game designers and operators - monetisation?

It is about the money

So, with that thought in mind, I've added another string to our regular Monetizer column, with the formation of the Monetizer Mavens.

This week, I asked them about the growing influence of Card-Collection Games (CCGs).

Some of the most commercially successful mobile games ever (Puzzle & Dragons) have used the card-collection mechanic and it's well understood in hardcore Asia markets.

But do you think it's something that has global appeal for a wide range of players? Even if card elements are hidden behind more user-friendly UX?

Finally, as designers, why are card-collection mechanics appealing? Can they ever appeal to the more casual audience?


Justin Stolzenberg Director, Product & Monetization Flaregames

I’m a big fan.

I'm excited about using [CC mechanics] in building games, as this might shift monetization focus away from waiting times.
Justin Stolzenberg

Using collection mechanics to monetize RPGs even more intensively seems to work well, but I’m actually more excited about using this in strategy/building games, as this might allow us to shift monetization focus away from the obnoxious waiting times and towards a more direct monetization of content and making players feel more powerful.

There’s a risk that having collection mechanics at the core of a base builder increases pressure on non-payers too much and changes the well-learned gameplay rhythm in a way that puts off a majority of players, but for me it’s a direction worth exploring.

And of course, a comparison of the ARPDAUs some card battlers/collection-based RPGs achieve with that of building games is skewed by the audience that tends to feel attracted to those titles.

So I wouldn’t expect a western builder, even with extensive collection mechanics, to reach the short-term monetization performance of Asian RPGs in the golden days of gacha.

Ben Cousins Vice President, Studios FRVR

Ben is a 15-year veteran of the games industry - he's worked as a senior executive, studio head, project lead, creative director and game designer at companies like DeNA, EA, Sony and Lionhead.

He started working on traditional games, but has been focussed on the free-to-play business model since 2006 - an extremely long time by western standards. During that time He's worked on a total of ten separate free-to-play games across five different platforms reaching over 50 million users.

Card games tend to coalesce several high-level game mechanics that are really great for free-to-play games where we need to engage players for months and months and have them continually spend, while tightly controlling dev budget.

  • Collection as a metagame goal in itself creates a LOT of gameplay for a relatively small cost
  • 2D art is much cheaper to produce, manage and integrate into a game than 3D assets
  • Randomness, illiciting similar emotions to gambling, really helps drive both retention and monetization. (Many people don't get this, but randomness is absolutely vital to the success of the Saga game genre)
  • Notions of rarity seem to tap into deep-seated human psychology and can drive very powerful emotions around monetization and retention
  • For highly engaged players, PvP gameplay and the desire to dominate is also very powerful for retention and monetization
I feel the notion of collecting cards is probably too abstract for some consumers.
Ben Cousins

While any of these elements by themselves will be useful for building a F2P mobile game, card battle type games are interesting in that they generally contain ALL of these elements. This is why I think they are so successful.

However, I feel that the notion of collecting cards and playing with cards probably is both too abstract for some consumers and also stigmatised as nerdy by others.

I think there is a great opportunity to take the above elements and apply them to other genres. The most obvious would be RPGs, where loot drops, rarity and collection are also intrinsic to the genre, but there are others.

I personally am not wired for card games or board games of any kind. They are too abstracted for me.

Mitchell Smallman Next Games

Mitchell Smallman is a Product Manager for Rovio Entertainment and a veteran of the free

I'm the exact opposite from Ben - card games immediately click with me and I would consider myself a very casual player.

Let's not forget, Windows Solitaire is still the most played PC game in the world, and just a few years ago competitive poker was a phenomenon in the US.

Culturally, at least in the West, cards are a familiar mechanic for games to nearly every potential game audience. I know it's easy to think of them in terms of CCGs but in F2P design I think it can go broader than that.

Hardcard heaven

Even though most casual players might not understand or likely even enjoy Magic: The Gathering, any game mechanic that can be collected in a set and contains some numbers and symbols can easily be relayed to any audience using a card.

I think the potential for even more casual games using card collection could be huge. Not just in terms of monetization, but in making games for new audiences with broad appeal that ALSO takes advantage of the great monetization techniques card collection offers.

Tom Farrell Marketing director Swrve

Interestingly I enjoy card-based games out in the real world but have never translated that interest to mobile and social gaming..

To answer the question: yes, there is certainly the potential for a wide range of players to 'get' and enjoy card collection games.

Fundamentally, this is an example of "the numbers go UP!" archetype of game design, which is satisfying at a very basic level.

It is like playing a slot machine but always winning something.
Tom Farrell

As already noted, the randomness of card acquisition is powerful - but there's also the fact that the user never feels like their effort is wasted (because even the most useless, repetitive card can be turned into at least a minor bonus). It is like playing a slot machine but always winning something.

And of course you can take the core mechanics of card collecting and overlay it with UIs and additional mechanics to bring a feeling of skill into it.

For example, you can bring a strong/weak typing circle (e.g. type X weak to Y is weak to Z is weak to X) which creates a skill aspect of balancing the type of cards you have. There's an additional bonus here of driving players to collect different types.

All of this can appeal to a wide audience. Watching numbers go up, making choices that affect the outcome of the battle, and activity beyond tapping the screen to progress the battle are elements of many popular casual games after all.

It will take a special execution like Puzzle & Dragons to reach Candy Crush/Clash of Clans-types of market penetration in the US.

Ethan Levy Monetization design consultant, writer of

The card collection and fusion mechanic is something that has proven global appeal.

The original question insinuates that card games are not currently popular outside Asia. But if I look at the iPhone top grossing chart in the US right now, I see a number of games with card collection and fusion as a driver of the engagement and monetization loop.

Brave Frontier, Injustice, Summoners War, Knights & Dragons, Marvel War of Heroes and Star Wars Force Collection are just some of the current top 150 grossing games that employ card collection mechanics.

Looking outside of mobile, one just needs to look at the success of EA's Ultimate Team component in their sports titles to see the broad appeal of card collection mechanics.

In FY 2014, EA reported that ultimate team mode generated over $380 million across Madden, FIFA and NHL.

Card-collection mechanics have been successfully bolted onto FIFA

Card pack mechanics on their own are fun. There is a nice play of anticipation, tension and release. Anticipation as you build up currency to buy a pack. Tension before you open it as you wonder what you are going to get. Release when you see your goodies.

I think there is clear potential for card collection and fusion systems to go broader.
Ethan Levy

There are moments of elation when you find rare items out of a random card pack, but there is also disappointment when you get unwanted and/or duplicate cards.

This is where fusion systems come into play. The pairing of a card pack mechanic with fusion works incredibly well, and is something only digital games can do. If in Magic the Gathering I spend $4 on a 15 card booster pack I may not get anything I wanted. I can only recover value out of unwanted cards by trading them with other players.

But in a digital game, I spend 3 days grinding to earn enough currency for a high tier card pack and get a duplicate of a card/monster/hero that I already own, that item still has value because I can sacrifice it to level up my other cards through fusion.

I think there is clear potential for card collection and fusion systems to go broader than they currently are.

With the proper visual and narrative metaphor, a card collection and fusion mechanic can appeal to a casual, female skewing audience just as strongly as it appeals to the more core, male skewing audiences of the games cited above.

Dimitar Draganov Director Product BoomBit Games

A game design and monetization analyst with professional gaming background and degrees in Social Sciences, Economics and Probabilities and Statistics, Dimitar also writes the Freemium Game Designs blog.

I'm totally with Ethan on this - the card collection mechanics have already proven to be successful not only worldwide, but also in a wide spectrum of F2P.

Breaking down the main mechanics inspired by CCGs, I would mention collections, fusion and gacha.

Collections are clearly a worldwide psychological phenomenon and I would attribute huge part of the success of most racing games on mobile (not only) to it and it's clear those are mostly western revenue streams.

I found it interesting that collecting turned out to be a stronger incentive for spending than car performance or visuals as NaturalMotion's CSR Classics quickly raised and stayed above the original CSR Racing in the charts.

This elegant implementation [of fusion] allowed for consumable revenues to reach a hefty 70% at times.
Dimitar Draganov

Collecting is of course also present in almost every other genre in one form or another as it is one of those mechanics to always keep achievers and explorers on the hook.

Fusion has also been popping up more and more lately. One of my titles, a very US-Europe centric strategy tycoon, managed to market to players the idea of consumable units by having fusion as a core strength progress mechanic.

Fusion would increase stats and slow down the process of dying, but units would eventually die anyways. This elegant implementation allowed for consumable revenues to reach a hefty 70% at times and we all know what that means.

Let's also not forget all the breeding games out there - dragons, dinosaurs and all kinds of other vile creatures. This entire genre is quite successful in the west, but at its core is a revamped CCG by being built upon the combination of fusion, the anticipation of the uncertain results and the drive to collect all possible creatures.

A rare pink war dog; apparently worth 38,000 dollars in DOTA 2

Finally, let's not forget how a couple of years ago everyone thought that introducing a gacha into a game would actually make that game a success in Asia. Tycoons, endless runners, shooters, fighters everyone was implementing a version of gacha and it obviously paid out for some.

After the pure gambling games entered fiercely the top grossing charts, the trend has somewhat settled down, but most games still sport gacha mechanics in one type or another. The $38,000 DOTA 2 courier is a worthy mention here, as it once again showcases the psychology of collecting with pure gambling.

Mark Robinson CEO DeltaDNA

With over 15 years’ data mining experience, Mark co-founded deltaDNA, formerly GamesAnalytics, to unlock big data to drive player understanding, introducing the concept of Player Relationship Management to build better games.

These comments are from Sarah in our office...

In a way, older physical TCGs like Magic: The Gathering or the Pokemon TCG have a lot in common with F2P games.

Sure, you would have to buy a starter deck to get going, but then you could go and buy as many or as few booster packs of cards as you wanted. They were definitely pay-to-win, though! I never got any good cards as I could only buy one booster a week with my pocket money, haha.

As for the global appeal, Hearthstone has done a fantastic job of making card games accessible. As an old-school Magic player, I recognised a lot of similar mechanics in Hearthstone that had been really simplified. For example in Magic, you have to draw Lands from your deck as a resource, but in Hearthstone your mana exists separately to your deck.

Games like WWE Supercard are even simpler as it's basically Top Trumps! However, after playing it for a couple of hours, and with Hearthstone too, it's clear that there are some much deeper mechanics.

Hearthstone - the CCG for people who don't like CCGs?

It's the whole 'moments to pick up, lifetime to master' style of gameplay that makes them accessible for new players yet with the longevity for experts.

Finally, "Why are card-collection mechanics appealing"? Well, that person has clearly never opened up a booster pack of Pokemon cards as a kid and experienced the pure thrill of finding a shiny Blastoise!

It's the whole randomness of it, and the rarity of certain cards. With WWE, you have the attraction of finding your favourite wrestlers, and with Hearthstone you have the quality of the art and the attention to detail with each card.

Wes Leviton Lead Designer Adrian Crook & Associates

Wesley Leviton is a lead designer and producer with a 15-year history of creating successful games across mobile, social, and console spaces. Wes is an early innovator in mobile gaming with a history of identifying, innovating, and incorporating emerging gaming trends.

Wes has worked for many major companies including Disney, Majesco, Sony of America, A&E, Hasbro, Warner Bros, and Ubisoft. His specialties include monetization strategies, live operations, game systems and mechanics, data driven design, user acquisition, and social game design.

[One key element on card-collection games' commercial success is their 'gacha' or random drop mechanics; something addressed by Wes Leviton.]

Before determining if Gacha mechanics have the potential to reach a mass market casual audience it’s important to understand why Gacha mechanics are so successful in creating the astronomical ARPPU numbers that they’re known for.

While there are a number of factors contributing to their success, two factors in particular really stand out:

  • Design: Deep game systems

The reason we see a lot of successful Gacha in the RPG genre is because RPG games typically offer more layers than casual titles.

Spellfall  has successfully blended casual puzzle mechanics with semi-deep itemization.
Wes Leviton

Heroes and enemies with elemental affiliations (fire, water, earth, etc.), character classes (knights, wizards, rouges, etc.) and skill types (attack, heal, enchant, etc.) are standard fare in the RPG genre, resulting in thousands of possible character permutations. Combine with rarity and fusion/evolution mechanics and you’ve got an environment ripe for Gacha opportunities.

  • Audience: Theorycrafters and Maximizers

Theorycrafting is the analysis of game mechanics to discover strategies and tactics with the goal of maximizing efficiency and character/party performance.

The RPG genre is the ideal environment for deep theorycrafting potential and tends to attract and retain players that are obsessive about maximizing their party and going to great lengths to squeeze the most out of each of their heroes. The most engaged of these players will spend a lot of time (and money) in the pursuit of the ever-elusive “perfect” party.

Does this mean that Gacha isn’t viable in titles targeting a broad, casual player base?

Backflip's Spellfall - the next wave of CCG hybrids for the west?

We know that complexity and hard to grasp game systems are simply too much for the casual market. To bring Gacha-like mechanics to the casual audience requires some simplification and careful design choices.

One recent title that attempts to do this is Spellfall by Backflip studios. While not a traditional CCG game by any means, Spellfall has successfully blended causal puzzle mechanics with semi-deep itemization that is both enticing to the mid-core market, yet easy enough for more casual players to grasp and understand.

Within Spellfall we see the typical causal targeted monetization vectors of power-ups and revives along side Gacha-like mystery boxes that offer the player a chance to find rare and ultra rare items.

Anyone looking to bring Gacha mechanics to the casual audience should spend some time with Spellfall.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.