Mobile Mavens

What's the correct order of Acquisition, Retention and Monetization for F2P games?

Monetizer Mavens shuffle the pack

What's the correct order of Acquisition, Retention and Monetization for F2P games?

As we prepare for Pocket Gamer Connects London 2016, we're thinking about how to evolve one of our classic tracks.

Previously called 'Acquire, Engage, Monetize', changes in how mobile games are developed and operated mean the order of those tasks has morphed and merged.

One suggestion is to reorder them as Retain, Monetize, Acquire...

So, given that situation, and how integrated acquisition, engagement and monetisation are within the F2P game design and development process, we decided to ask our Monetizer Mavens...

  • In what order should these three terms be ordered, and why?


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.

Interesting question. Of course developers do (kind of) spend money in the order - Retain (design fun game), Monetize (add purchase options to fun game), & Acquire (launch game).

Although I'm a big proponent of maximising what my old boss Neil Young used to call 'kerb appeal', i.e. the intrinsic organic appeal of the game.

If this is true the first decision you make can (should?) actually be an acquisition-related one - 'what type of game are we making?'

Get this wrong and even a big marketing spend, great retention design and awesome monetisation will be no use, because your ad conversions will be awful, you won't get featured, and your organic install rate will suck.

We don't want to go big until our data is great, but we can't get trustworthy data unless we go big.
Ben Cousins

Another complication to this question is that often, in order to get statistically significant analytics data on retention and (to a greater extent monetisation), you might need to do a major launch with lots of organic user acquisition or a smaller controlled launch with paid user acquisition.

Catch 22. We don't want to go big until our data is great, but we can't get trustworthy data unless we go big.

So I think the order should stay as before.

The question came up I guess because the actual dollar spend of paid acquisition is so central in everyone's thinking nowadays that we forget that there are other elements that make up the equation of real-world acquisition cost (download size, kerb appeal, and subsequent organic acquisition rate/CTR).

I'd argue that these elements are the first decisions that developers make.

Tim Rachor Creative Director Evil Grog Games GmbH

Are we only talking about the order or also about the priorization of the different terms? Regarding the order it's obvious that you can't retain or monetize if you haven't acquired a single user.

Retention and monetization numbers might be linked to your actual user base and player community.
Tim Rachor

But it raises a good question: Does it make sense to heavily invest in user acquisition as long as your retention and monetization mechanics won't support it? Not surprisingly the answer is "No".

In that regard you could argue that the order should be changed to put an emphasize on a supportive game ecosystem.

In reality, as Ben stated, you need some place to start and then figure out where to go from that.

Also depending on your game, retention and monetization numbers might be linked to your actual user base and player community. The original order, more or less representing the user life-cycle, is something everybody should be able to work with I guess and seems more intuitive to me.

Though maybe another interesting question:

Why do you put retention before monetization? I would say these two should work alongside each other... at least if you talk about long-time retention after the first purchase.

Jero Juujärvi Founder Acquire, Engage & Monetize

Jero is a very business oriented and entrepreneur-spirited game developer focusing on combining game design, business and marketing.

CAUTION: If you engage this person with topics of game marketing or monetization, just clear your schedule for rest of the day.

I think acquire, engage and monetize designs as walls in a triangle shaped pool.

If you do bad work at one side of a wall, water leaks from there. Make all sides well and you can have your successful pool party.

I think prioritizing is not useful as each of these three elements are required to have a successful title.

How you approach this things then (what to work on first) is definitely market research. Knowing how to acquire, engage and monetize benefits you, but are weak if no proper market research and customer analysis in tested markets is conducted.

Tom Farrell Marketing director Swrve

Clearly a successful title needs each leg of the stool to be functioning otherwise somebody is going to end up on their backside.

However the 'order' in which these challenges are addressed is not an abstract consideration, and I think the proposed 'retain, monetize, acquire' sequence feels about right.

Monetization and retention are two sides of a single coin.
Tom Farrell

Certainly we have many customers who produce a large number of titles in any given year and simply do not commit to acquisition unless the retention and monetization aspects of the game have been optimized and tested within secondary markets.

Only when those companies have confidence in those numbers are they willing to turn on the acquisition tap, and who can blame them? Acquisition is expensive - if feels to me downright foolhardy to spend any significant amount of money on acquisition in hope rather than expectation.

Of course there are different models of growth. 'Sleeper' hits have more opportunity to fine-tune as they go, but even then it represents a huge risk to optimize after the fact. Ultimately, you are still pouring water into a leaky sieve.

As to the relative order of retain and monetize, I would say you have it about right, if only because somewhere in the region of 25% of installs are played once.

But we should remember that monetization and retention are two sides of a single coin and each can influence the other.

Jordan Blackman CEO Bright Black Associates

Jordan Blackman is a lead designer and producer with over ten years of experience designing, producing, and managing hit content for companies like Zynga, Ubisoft, NovaLogic, & Disney.

Over 80 million people have played games that Jordan worked on as either a producer or designer.

Jordan’s credits include Lead Designer on FrontierVille & CastleVille, Senior Producer and Original Concept on CSI: Crime City (Facebook), Producer on Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, and Writer on Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising.

When you go to the movies you first see an ad for it, then buy a ticket, and finally enjoy the story. But when you make a movie, you first make sure you have a good story, then you work on ads, and finally you sell tickets.

Both orders are valid depending on the context were ordering them for and it's the same here.

An individual player experience is thus:

  • Acquire > Retain (or Engage) > Monetize

Though often for product development the order these elements are perfected is so:

  • Retain > Monetize > Acquire

Of course monetization isn't something that should just be added in after retention, and that can then make retention painful.

So perhaps Monetize > Retain > Acquire is an alternative.

In any case, flipping the funnel's focus (say that 7 times fast) from how it's experienced is how you make sure it's ready for prime time when you go big.

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.

Players are at the heart of gaming, everything starts and ends with the player. Otherwise you just got code.

Only by analyzing how players interact with your game in detail can you make the delicate adjustments will engage all your players and make them want to come back for more.

Without having retained players, all forms of monetization will fail.

Whether it's IAP or through in-game advertising, effective monetization can only happen when player retention is strong and when players are appropriately targeted. But it has to be embedded.

Maybe there is an argument that the most successful games practise Acquire, Retain, Monetize & Reinvest.

Mikkel Celinder Owner,

Really interesting question - here's my take on it.

I think the key component of the entire discussion is from which perspective we look at the 'Acquire' - and especially how vague we use that term.

I think the key component of the discussion is from which perspective we look at Acquire.
Mikkel Faurholm

Whether the Acquire is defined as the design or the game, creating fun experience, soft launching in Canada, or a Kickstarter campaign, it is so essential that it begins with an acquisition - a mean to get people to play the game.

That can, as Ben suggests, end up becoming a Catch-22.

In whatever scale you look at it, you acquire then retain players and then you hopefully monetize.

Putting the Acquire at the end is either, as Mark says, a Reinvestment or simply nullifying whatever Acquisition went prior to the initial Retain because a title is analysed after its launch or using the Acquire as a strict marketing term.

You could look at whatever Top Grossing game on the App Store or Google Play and ask yourself the question, what form of acquisition made them enter the top 50?


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.