Stateside: F2P needs to earn the player's trust to unlock longterm success, says DragonVale's Backflip

Playing the long game

Stateside: F2P needs to earn the player's trust to unlock longterm success, says DragonVale's Backflip

Life is good for Backflip Studios.

The veteran Colorado-based mobile studio not only has a nine-figure acquisition by Hasbro this year to celebrate by diving into pools of gold coins, Scrooge-McDuck-style, but also because of the continuing success of its 2011 hit DragonVale.

Backflip has announced that its hit free-to-play dragon-raising game has hit 750 consecutive days in the top 50 grossing chart in the US, with 25 million mobile downloads and 4.5 million monthly active users to this day.

I spoke to Joe Lazarus, the chief marketing officer at the studio, about what Backflip has done to make DragonVale such a long-term success, and what he thinks about the state of the market at large.

All fired up

Lazarus credits the regular content updates to DragonVale for part of the long-term success.

"We're continually updating the game," he tells me. "DragonVale is the first game we developed as a studio where, before the game even launched, we had ambitions of this being a product that would live as long as possible.

"So we launched with a wide team in place, of both technical and creative talent, that is just continually adding new dragons to the game, new features, and I think that's what's managed to keep players engaged.

"We're on pace now where about every week or two we launch content into the game."


Backflip also takes pride in the fact that DragonVale tries to live up to the free part of free-to-play gaming.

Bryan Mashinter, a producer at Backflip, passionately defended DragonVale's ability to let players experience the entire game for free when I spoke with him at GDC, and Lazarus feels the same.

"The majority of the people who play DragonVale play entirely for free. So there's a significant portion of our audience that doesn't spend money in the game, and we're fine with that, that's obviously sort of part of the freemium, free-to-play model.

"That's one of the core tenets that we've held since the beginning, is that everything we've made in the game can be played for free. The people who do spend money in the game are choosing to, in order to accelerate progress in the game."

Lazarus says this has come at short-term cost, but he believes there have been long-term gains with its users.

"I imagine that if you compared monetisation with metrics for DragonVale to some other games that have been in the top grossing at some point, you might find that our daily revenue metrics might be a bit lower than some that monetise better in a short-term basis.

"But, because we try to treat our players fairly, and try to offer everything in the game for free if [they] choose to play that way, I think we retain users for a longer period than any of our competitors do," he adds.

"So that overall lifetime value of the customer is comparable if not higher than some other games in the top grossing charts. We just do it over a longer period of time, we're able to engage players over a longer period of time. So it works out for us in the long run."

Steps to success

And this sense of trust has extended to the rest of Backflip's catalog, with cross-promotion from other Backflip games like Paper Toss, NinJump, and Ragdoll Blaster serving as one of the key factors behind DragonVale's success.

"One of the reasons for DragonVale's success is that we had a large base of users playing our more casual titles that we were able to use that audience to cross-promote DragonVale when we first launched it," says Lazarus.

"So even today we continue to use our casual games as a low-cost way to acquire new users…the fact that we have had some successes in the past leading up to DragonVale's launch, that's certainly contributed to the success of DragonVale."

DragonVale's success, two years after launch

Lazarus doesn't think that the mobile market is becoming stagnant, though, and that consistent successes may be good for mobile gaming.

"The fact that there are these companies that do sort of to maintain its position in the grossing charts, I think in some way, that's a good thing for the industry, that mobile games are not just something that can be a hobby or a good lifestyle business, but something that actually can grow into a multimillion dollar, potentially eventually a multi-billion dollar business, I think is a good thing," he claririfes.

"Small, medium, and large-sized companies have role models that they can aspire to in terms of building a really substantial business, if something that a game developer is interested in doing."

For other developers, Lazarus says it's important for them to about cross-promotion as "just one method - an effective method - to provide distribution for a new title."

He continues, "There's other forms of distribution and customer acquisition, but I think it's important for developers to think through not only making a fun game but, also, how are you going to expose that game to as many players as possible?

"The market is becoming increasingly competitive and therefore I think there's always going to be opportunities for new developers to come out of nowhere and have a top 10 hit where in top free or top grossing charts.

"However, I think it is important to think through sort of how are you going to build that audience, and how are you going to find the people that are interested in your game."

Backflip certainly found its answer for DragonVale, and for other developers, perhaps there's lessons in Backflip's success to be learned.

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!