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Last update: August 2020

5 mins to read - 2020/07/29

Mobile Game Retention: Everything You Need to Know

The competition for the mobile games industry is steep, especially for the free-to-play (F2P) variety. With so many other gaming apps to vie against for users’ attention, convincing players to stay engaged can seem like an uphill battle. Indeed, a shocking 94% of users churn within 28 days of downloading a gaming app. According to a mobile gaming industry analysis report by GameAnalytics, less than 15% of mobile games retain 35% of players after day 1. These are shocking statistics, particularly when keeping an eye on retention metrics is so crucial to a mobile game’s survival. Here are a few core practices to follow to maximize user retention for your gaming app.

Mobile Game Retention – a Losing Battle?

Mobile games have the highest churn rate in the apps industry. It’s exactly because the market is so saturated, and because so many popular games are free, that gaming apps are seen as disposable. Download an F2P game, and if you don’t enjoy it, you can download one of the 100 other apps that are exactly like it.

Top-performing mobile games tend to only have a 6.5% retention rate by Day 28. And those numbers get even worse for children’s gaming apps, with a 1.5% retention rate by Day 28. Mobile games have the steepest retention curve of any app… But the good news is that if a user hasn’t churned by Day 28, the graph stabilizes after then.

mobile game retention graph
Image Source: https://thetool.io/2018/user-retention-mobile-apps-games

Beat the Curve With a Good First Impression

If you can beat that 1-day churn mark, that’s half the battle won already. So make sure your game offers players a smooth and easy onboarding process. Send them a notification welcoming them to the gaming community, explaining the backstory of your universe, etc. This can then direct them to an orientation or walk-through tutorial of your game. (Helpful tip: a lot of churn can be prevented by making sure users know all of your game’s features and how to navigate them, so they don’t get needlessly bored or frustrated!)

For RPGs or other narrative-driven games, onboarding can include a stint at an academy or training base, where the player learns the gaming mechanisms and anything else they need to know get the most out of your gaming experience. It also never hurts to give them a complimentary cache of in-game currency, or a free weapon or cosmetic. This not only gets them invested in the game early on, but it piques their interest to engage more.

For more tips on how to win over users during every stage of the player life cycle, check out our blog post: 5 Stages of User Engagement for Mobile Games

Perfect Your Core Game Loop for Maximum Retention

Your core game loop are the repetitive actions your player takes during your game. For example, in PacMan, it’s navigating the maze to eat dots, and occasionally pieces of fruit. To keep the core game loop from being disrupted, the game has to throw challenges the player’s way. In PacMan’s case, these are the ghosts that come to eat him – but which earn PacMan bonus points if he eats them. Throwing in challenges and surprises keep your player interested, and lets them demonstrate the skills they have learned. Combining various game loops, with short- and long-term goals, are how you keep your player entertained over the entire course of the game.

However, it’s a delicate balancing act. If a loop is too repetitive, players will lose interest quickly. But introduce too many new challenges too early in the game, and you might overwhelm them. Keep early game loops simple: walk, run, swap gems, collect coins. Make sure the mechanics for these skills are intuitive or easily learned. (E.g. swipe right or left to move in that direction; tap on an angry bird to launch it…) Then, as players become more confident, throw in some enemies and opportunities to use new skills: attack, defend, jump, shoot arrows, etc. Make sure to reward your players for successfully meeting these challenges: give them some new content, bonus levels, or flashy cosmetics for their troubles!

Use funnels to identify areas in your game where a lot of players are churning. Then address how to fix that loop – whether gameplay has plateaued, or whether it’s too difficult too early on.

Build a Habit of Gameplay and Foster Loyalty

Your game doesn’t have to be the best of its category to achieve retention. (Although that certainly helps!) If you have an above-average game and a strong mobile engagement strategy, players will open your app every day. The strongest driver of user engagement are push notifications, which if used correctly help create a one-on-one relationship between the gaming app and its player.

A core technique is to send players a push notification reminder at the same time every day, so that they develop a regular habit of playing your game. That way, the motivation to open your app at 7 pm every evening will be an internal, almost Pavlovian response.

Reinforce a user’s habitual gameplay by also building their loyalty. Do what you can to incentivize players to keep playing your game instead of looking elsewhere for entertainment. There are plenty of creative ways to do this, beyond just rewarding them with bonus points or currency. Let long-term users access exciting, new content, or premium tiers of gameplay.

Alternatively, you can use peer pressure to keep your players engaged. Get players to invite their friends to download your game, and then you can fire up some competitive spirit. Have them share their scores on social media. Send push notifications inviting them to team up to go on a raid, or battle their friends. Let them cooperate to build cities or entire worlds. Try to get players involved in the wider gaming community, by inviting them to livestream gaming events, developer AMAs, and other social events. The more socially engaged a player is, the more enjoyment they will get out of your game.

Read our blog post for more creative engagement ideas for your mobile game: Top 30 Best Practices for Push Notifications in 2020

Know Your Game Retention Metrics

All of these tactics are great in theory. But what are the metrics you’re looking for to know you’re on the right path? The mobile game industry has plenty of KPIs for you to track, including:

  • number of sessions
  • length of sessions
  • interval between sessions
  • player actions per session

“Stickiness” is another key term that helps developers track how well they are retaining users. Stickiness is the ratio of DAU (Daily Active Users) over MAU (Monthly Active Users). For example, if a game has 100 players registering as playing on a monthly basis, but only 5 of those players are opening the app on a daily basis, that game has a stickiness of 5%. High-performing gaming apps would hit a 20% DAU/MAU ratio, and anything lower than 7% is considered quite poor.

Of course, stickiness can depend on external factors as well. For example, as seen in the graph below, even top-performing mobile game retention hits a slump towards the end of the year. In November-December, most people are gearing up for the holidays and have other things to occupy their time than games. Conversely, the yearly high point for stickiness usually comes around October, when summer vacations are over and dark, cold weather drives more people indoors. October is a great time to take advantage of that bump in engagement through more advertising, discounts on in-app purchases, bonus content, and other rewards.

stickiness mobile game retention
Image Source: https://gameanalytics.com/blog/key-lessons-boost-game-retention.html

For more tips on metrics and KPIs to track engagement with your mobile game, read our blog post: Top KPIs for Mobile Games: Acquisition, Engagement, Conversion

To Churn or Not To Churn?

It’s not as simple a question as it seems. The obvious response might seem to keep as many players from churning as you possibly can. After all, retention is what makes or breaks a game, right?

Yes, but retaining customers costs money – whether you’re losing that revenue on discounts or other rewards to lure them back in, on subscriptions to mobile engagement technology you’re using to keep up the conversation, or what have you. And for an F2P game, if that user isn’t bringing in the value that you’re spending on them… you’re sometimes better off just letting that player churn.

Take this scenario: you have a game that after 7 days 98% of your users have churned. Rather than spend money acquiring users, and then spending even more money to prevent them from churning, it may be a better use of that budget to use it to figure out why so many players are churning in the first place. What about your game is driving players away at that 7-day mark? What about its core loop can be fixed, rather than continuing to throw money into liveops and other auxiliary aspects of the game?

A key pillar of a strong user retention strategy is boosting engagement with push notifications. Calculate how much your revenue would increase per month using OpenBack’s push notification platform:

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