6 Free-to-Play Design Lessons from Clash of Clans to Engage Players and Increase Profits December 13 2013

With this article, we celebrate Clash of Clans’ success and take a closer look at monetization and retention mechanics that power Clash of Clans and make it so wildly successful. Below are some key lessons for game developers hoping to achieve the benchmark quality level that Supercell has established with Clash of Clans. The last lesson in particular shows how Supercell went against Zynga's teachings and conventional wisdom to satisfy both players and monetization needs.

Clash of Clans is a free-to-play city building/strategy game by the Finnish game developer Supercell. It was released on iOS in 2012 August and has since reached the top position in app stores in over 130 countries, including the biggest markets of Germany, Canada, UK and the USA. It has currently over 1.8 million daily active users and over 3 million monthly average users and at one point made 2.4 million per day, reaching revenues per user that few companies can even dream of. Success of Clash of Clans is the reason why Supercell broke all records in company growth speed in Finland and elsewhere.

 

1. Let players progress quickly (at first)

Progression is an integral part of any modern free-to-play game. In many F2P games, it functions as the core driver for monetization by setting goals for players and providing them with incentives to spend a bit of hard currency to overcome them. There as many flavors of progression as there are games, but there’s one thing in common with almost all of them: getting ahead requires you to spend time and effort. From a developer’s perspective, it can appear very desirable to create a progression system that is very demanding to stretch out content and incentivize players to pay. However, we should keep in mind that making players grind to achieve goals before they care about them can be dangerous. Too much waiting or grinding can alienate new players easily and ruin retention rates. On the flipside, completely avoiding difficult goals that take long to complete can be harmful too. If everything can be achieved in a snap, there is no compelling reason to pay. Furthermore, players might start leaving in droves once fresh content runs out. What to do, then?

Clash of Clans tackles this challenge issue by gradually ramping up progression times as players get ahead. The core loop of Clash of Clans is very quick at first and drives players to engage with the game continuously for a good fifteen minutes or so. Supercell takes things a step further by bringing in Gems, the hard currency in Clash of Clans, into the mix.  Waiting times that would usually get in the way are dealt with using Gems (described in more detail in the next section).

Past the initial experience, progression times gradually increase from minutes to hours to days as players become more engrossed and engaged. Top level players have to wait up to 14 days for certain buildings and upgrades to be finished. Gradually increasing waiting times serve two purposes. First, it elongates the lifetime of content and makes sure that all but the very top level players have goals to complete. Second, lengthening progression times effectively build up the pressure to purchase and use Gems. Learned habits die hard, and using Gems to skip waiting becomes more and more attractive as waiting times increase.

Key lesson:

Design your progression mechanics to go easy on new players and ramp up the requirements later on when players are thoroughly engaged with your game

2. Carefully teach your players how to use hard currency

Conversion is a concept that all free-to-play developers are familiar with. It is a percentage metric that measures how many players have converted into paying customers within a time period. Having a healthy portion of players convert to paying customers is of utmost importance for financial viability of any free-to-play title. There are several things that affect conversion, but there is one prerequisite condition that one must not neglect: ensuring that your players understand the value of the items you are selling and know how to obtain them with hard currency.

This is something that Clash of Clans really excels in. Gems, the hard currency in Clash of Clans, are carefully integrated into the new player experience. Every starting player is given a considerable pile of free Gems and are then educated on how to take advantage of them. Several times, the waiting times that the player would normally have to endure are skipped using Gems, driving the value proposition of Gems effectively into players’ heads. After the tutorial is done, players usually have Gems left to spare.

The key role that Gems play in the tutorial translates into two great benefits down the line. The first benefit is that having players use Gems in the tutorial makes player engagement even stronger by smoothing out the initial experience. The new player experience flows effortlessly and any obstacles or waiting times are dealt with Gems every player starts with. Providing a seamless flow to new players in the first fifteen minutes increases the chance new players are engaged and later on, retained. The second benefit comes later with monetization: by the end of the tutorial, every player understands why Gems are desirable and are already getting into the habit of using them. The generous supply of Gems given in the beginning lasts some ways beyond the tutorial and when they finally run out, a strong desire for more has already been kindled.

Key lesson:

Give free hard currency to all new players that enter the game and make them use it multiple times throughout the tutorial. Be generous to promote habit creation.

3. Provide goals of varying size and difficulty

As described in the first section, finding the right balance and cadence in progression is important. If everything is within reach quickly, players have little incentive to use hard currency and might soon churn through the content and exit the game with nothing to achieve. However, stretching out progression too much will risk losing players who simply give up in the face of the grind. Designing your progression times to ramp up over time is a good solution, but it can be augmented further by mixing things up at the same time: give players long-term goals to make your content last while also provide them with smaller goals that are achievable within minutes or hours to keep them tightly engaged. Having goals of varying sizes and lengths keeps the player engaged on multiple levels. There is something to do daily, there is something to wait for and there is something that can be planned ahead. Unfinished is remembered when it comes to bigger aspirations. Having longer term goals will improve your retention by giving players goals to come back for.

Clash of Clans features goals both large and small in its core gameplay. Unlike other city-building games, there are plenty of routine and intermediate tasks that demand the players’ attention in short cycles. Players can perform a variety of routine tasks that take little time to complete, such as attacking other players (provided that you have your troops ready to go) and collecting resources. This doesn’t mean that players can disregard the bigger goals, however, as new units, unit upgrades and the number of resources generated ultimately rely on leveling up almost all buildings in the village.

The important thing is that players always have tasks small and large in front of them and have choice in which to engage.

In Clash of Clans, routine tasks include such things as gardening, resource collection and arranging your village into a shape that is optimal for defense. These are tasks that are almost always available. Gardening features a nice mechanic for seeding hard currency: removing plants that occasionally grow next to your village comes with a chance to find a few Gems. Resource collectors fill up quite often and they need to be collected manually for the resource production to continue. This is also encouraged by the loss of resources you get when successfully attacked. A destroyed resource collector will give 50% of the resources to the attacker, while a destroyed storage will only give 30%. Resources are collected from the collectors (mines, elixir collectors and dark elixir collectors) to the storage rooms. Each resource has dedicated storage buildings and you can build more as your town hall levels up. As both buildings scale accordingly and gold and elixir are interconnected, it is impossible to be caught in a rut where you have ample amounts of other resource but a dire need for another. The player is kept constantly engaged.

Intermediate tasks take a while to complete, but an active player can still do them many times per day. These tasks include unit production and attacking. Attacking comes with a risk and potential for high rewards. A successful attack can yield a hefty pile of resources as loot and work to increase your current trophy level, which can increase the amount of guaranteed loot for successful attacks. Unit training takes some time, but not nearly as much as upgrading or building. Within an hour the player usually has his barracks full, and the training time scales with the level of troops being trained. On the lower levels the cycle can be as short as 10 to 15 minutes, constantly tempting engaged players to return to the game even though their bigger projects are not yet complete. After all, they can already work ahead, gather resources and ultimately save time when the next big task becomes available.

Key lesson: 

Design to provide goals of various sizes to all players for pacing purposes. Allow your players some easy and quick wins while simultaneously working on the bigger goals.

4. Give players strategic choice when spending hard currency

In Clash of Clans the player decides when to spend and the developers clearly have given them options to do so.  Even though you always have the choice to simply buy the resources needed to build a building or train a unit (option that is always prompted when you try to build something you cannot afford), you cannot do so until you have the resource storage space to house all the needed resources. The player’s choices are always limited in some way and though paying your way to the top is possible, it is also prohibitively expensive.  

There are usually also at least two choices on how to spend Gems: strategically by boosting building capacity/resource gathering speed (which is cheaper), or by buying instant upgrades (which is more expensive). Having both is important, since they cater to two different player types with different motivational drivers.

A great example of strategic spending choice in Clash of Clans is the builder’s hut. Builder’s huts are hard currency items, purchasable in the marketplace at any point. You have two of them at the start of the game, the maximum amount is five. Each additional builder’s hut grants the player an extra builder. Extra builders let the players build more buildings simultaneously and thus allow the players to progress more quickly since they don’t have to wait for previous building projects to be completed before starting a new one. Since the mechanic is thoroughly introduced in the tutorial, players can do a mental calculation and end up with the conclusion that a builder’s hut is a good investment. Paying to complete individual buildings will rack up to be more expensive over time than the upfront, one-time fee for a builder’s hut. By spending an upfront sum on them early, players can “save” a lot down the line. As such, they are a very attractive first-purchase option for players who have money to spend, but haven’t yet opened their wallets.

Another beautiful trick in play here are the free gems: with careful play the player can save the gems needed to build the third hut through achievements and pruning your village, but the difficulty ramps up quickly for the last two huts.  They cost 1000 and 2000 gems respectively, together amounting to about $25 and with the third one added in about $30. Getting them for free is still feasible without paying, but most players, having the choice, probably tend to pick the easier way and purchase Gems for real money.

Key lesson:

Provide different ways to spend money towards the same goal. Let fiscally-minded players invest in their play and provide those who just want to get ahead immediately with avenues to instant gratification.

5. Offer quantity discounts on bigger purchases

The marketplace of Clash of Clans offers no high cost performance items that would entice big spenders to buy them. So how does Supercell monetize their big spenders (or “whales”)? How to keep the big spenders happy and provide them with enticing options to spend money on? While some titles create unique, expensive items to cater specifically to whales, Supercell solves this by having the monetization model scale to the spending behavior of each player. From the start, everything can be accelerated or skipped with hard currency. This has the benefit of making hard currency purchases scale, regardless of spending habits.  Nobody is ever locked out of playing the game by not having money and can choose their level of spending to suit them. Casual players may invest a few dollars in a builder’s hut, while hardcore players can quickly boost their village to compete with the best.

While the model caters to big spenders very well, having costs linear would mean that accelerating progression with hard currency would quickly become outrageously expensive. This is solved by offering quantity discounts on larger purchases. The more you buy, the lower the unit price.

Offering quantity discounts allows big spenders to continue spending as they progress without costs getting out of hand. Should they not be there, Clash of Clans would probably suffer from a much higher monetization burnout rate when it comes to whales.

Key lesson:

Offer quantity discounts on large purchases. If your monetization model differs from Clash of Clans, don’t worry: you can offer quantity discounts on progression boosts, premium accounts and use bundles to discount consumable items.

6. Avoid blocking core gameplay to force conversion

Using time and waiting to entice players to pay has since the social game era been a definite part of the free-to-play monetization toolkit. Probably one of the most well-known time-mechanics is Zynga’s energy mechanic, in which the player is required to spend energy to play and to spend money to replenish energy. At one point the energy system was considered the only viable monetization tactic there was, at least in social games. Having forced periods of waiting adds pressure into the game and entices the player to spend real money in order to avoid waiting.

Clash of Clans is not different in the sense that waiting is also a core part of Clash of Clans’ gameplay. The critical difference is that paying never presented as a hard gate: there is no energy mechanic that prevents players from continuing to play unless they pay. Playing is always possible and there are always things to do. Instead, the focus in on keeping the player engaged and entertained as much as possible while subtly offering attractive opportunities to pay.

The engagement-focused approach of Clash of Clans feeds heavily into building a large, engaged and loyal player base. Following the free-to-play funnel, Clash of Clans focuses strongly on engagement. That engagement leads to retention and retention ultimately to monetization. Supercell has naturally made sure that there are plenty of avenues to use hard currency, but as it seems, the primary focus has been on building a very engaging game that keeps bringing players back. The resulting high engagement and retention rates provide a foundation from which Supercell is earning its record-breaking revenues.

Key lesson:

Avoid designing mechanics that prevent core gameplay. If you succeed in engaging your players, they will want to stick around. If they do, you’ll have a good chance of getting them to open their wallets.

Conclusion

Clash of Clans is a remarkable piece of game design. It is smooth and it is possible to play it for ages before running out of things to do. There are no obvious “new” features that a monetization expert could criticize but neither are there obvious faults in the game design that would make it unenjoyable. The designers of Supercell clearly adopted the games-as-service mantra before it became the chant you can hear everywhere.  This game is a service; it is being constantly updated and controlled and at no point is the player left without anything to do. As far as best practices go, Clash of Clans is a great subject for study.

Here's a table of the key lessons for easy reference:

# Lesson Explanation
1 Let players progress quickly (at first) Design your progression mechanics to go easy on new players and ramp up the requirements later on when players are thoroughly engaged with your game
2 Carefully teach your players how to use hard currency Give free hard currency to all new players that enter the game and make them use it multiple times throughout the tutorial. Be generous to promote habit creation.
3 Provide goals of varying size and difficulty Design to provide goals of various sizes to all players for pacing purposes. Allow your players some easy and quick wins while simultaneously working on the bigger goals.
4 Give players strategic choice when spending hard currency Provide different ways to spend money towards the same goal. Let fiscally-minded players invest in their play and provide those who just want to get ahead immediately with avenues to instant gratification.
5 Offer quantity discounts on bigger purchases Offer quantity discounts on large purchases. If your monetization model differs from Clash of Clans, don’t worry: you can offer quantity discounts on progression boosts, premium accounts and use bundles to discount consumable items.
6 Avoid blocking core gameplay to force conversion Avoid designing mechanics that prevent core gameplay. If you succeed in engaging your players, they will want to stick around. If they do, you’ll have a good chance of getting them to open their wallets.

 

We hope that Supercell continue their success in bringing their high quality games in to the mobile market. Right now they have the funding and the data to do so at least.  We are eagerly waiting for when their newest game Boom Beachis ready for an analysis.