How to Monetize Your Mobile Game

Since the creation of the iPhone, developers have been clamoring to put their games and applications on the app store. With the evolution of iOS, Android, and — to some extent — the Windows phone, the mobile game marketplace has grown to become an incredibly lucrative market, with games like Flappy Bird and Subway Surfers making thousands of dollars every day. A common issue that fledgling mobile developers struggle with is how to monetize their games in a way that would be valuable for the developer, but not annoying or intrusive to the users.

So, let’s talk about the different methods of monetizing, and some strategies for getting paid without driving people away.

Pay Once

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Pay-once games are the traditional way of making money. You create a finished product, you charge $5 for someone to buy the finished product. No more interruptions beyond that, besides a DLC pack or two. This is the main way PC and console games make their money, and for those platforms, it works very well.

The decision to run with a pay-once structure depends highly on the type of game you are releasing. Complete finished experiences such as Monument Valley thrive on the pay-once structure, plus a couple of additional DLC packs. Monument valley works because it is a full experience that has a beginning and, more importantly, an ending.

If your game has an ending, the pay-once structure is a good choice.

One thing to consider, however, is that games with endings are far less popular in a mobile marketplace. Recently, Google rearranged the Play Store to reflect current gaming trends. The order used to go Top Paid > Top Free > Top Grossing > Trending. Now, the order is Top Free > Top Grossing > Trending > Top Paid.


Here’s how ads work:

  1. App developer puts ad on game.
  2. Developer gets paid based on how many people see the ad, and how many  people click the ad.

Many developers believe that slapping a banner ad on top of the gameplay is a good idea. I sure did for my first game. “It’s out of the way, so people won’t even notice it, but if they accidentally click it, I’ll get a little bit of money,” I thought.

This is a bad, bad, bad, bad idea.

If you are going to put ads in your game, you need to be thoughtful about their placement. On a website, ads can simply be scrolled past, unless the site uses those awful ones that pop up in front of the content and have to be dismissed. On an app, however, the ads are as intrusive as the developer wants them to be. If ads are used incorrectly, many people will uninstall your game right there and never look back.

One game that is very highly looked upon in the mobile market is Crossy Road. This simple Frogger-like endless runner game is a great example of ads done right. For those who haven’t played, the game is known for its wide variety of animals and characters you can unlock and play as. Unlocking the characters is simple — you spend coins on a lottery, and are given a random character. Every day you play the game, coins are given to you as a gift, and oftentimes they will be enough coins to play the lottery. If you’re a few coins shy of reaching the 100 coins required, the game will give you the option of watching an ad to give you more coins.

This is a great idea for two reasons.

First, The player is asked first, and then rewarded for watching an ad. Asking the player first makes the ads completely non-intrusive. The player can essentially never have to watch an ad if they don’t want to. However, giving the player incentive to watch the ad will make them more likely to opt-in.

Second, video ads are by far the most lucrative ads for app developers. When choosing an ad, you are presented with three options — banner, page, and video. A banner ad is the tiny ad that appears on the edge of the screen. These pay the least, and are usually not worth your time. Page ads take up the entire page. These are far more intrusive than banner ads, but pay more as well. These ads are good if you don’t want to subject the player to a full 30 second ad each time, and can be dismissed immediately. Video ads take the entire screen for a period of time, and pay the most.

When considering putting ads in your game, make sure the placement makes sense, and never ever blocks the gameplay.

In-App Purchases

These are the true money-makers, but they are also considered a taboo in the gaming community. In-App-Purchases, also known as microtransactions, are small purchases the user can make while playing.

In-App-Purchases are most commonly used in two ways:

1 – speeding up progress / Improving gameplay

Many games you see on the top-grossing section of the app store use this method of monetization. In-App-Purchases are used as psychological tools to get the player to spend more money. This is done by having two currencies in your game — a minor currency, and a premium currency. The minor currency is given to the player often for free. However, this currency can only buy the most basic of things in the game, and to get any significant progress, a large amount of the minor currency is required.

The premium currency is the important one. This is the one people pay for. Premium currency is given out in abundance at the beginning of the game, but rarely ever given out for free afterwards. Premium currency is used to purchase major game-changing things. For some games, this is the ability to fast-forward time. Many top games on the app store will halt progression for a set period of time. This prevents the player from burning out, and causes the player to become more addicted to the game. If the player is not burned out, they are likely to use the premium currency to continue playing. If you’re out of the currency, “eh, it’s only a dollar”.

This method can be TERRIBLE for retention. If your one-person game studio is just getting off the ground, and you aren’t expecting hundreds of thousands of downloads, I recommend avoiding this method of In-App-Purchases.

2 – Cosmetics

Cosmetics are changes to the game’s appearance in the form of character skins and themes. In the eyes of many gamers, cosmetics are the best thing you can put behind a pay wall in a game. People love cosmetics, and many people will pay money to make their character look nicer. Going back to the Crossy Road example, several specialty characters such as the dragon can be bought immediately for $1, rather than won through the lottery. Giving the player this option gives more impatient players the ability to get the character they want whenever they want, but more patient players can keep holding out for it.

Using cosmetic In-App-Purchases and Ads in conjunction can be very lucrative for mobile developers, as long as they are not overdone. The goal is to show the player the value in using their time and money in your game, rather than forcing them to pay or watch ads.


Thank you very much for reading,

Harrison N

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