Mobile App Monetization the PopCap Way

When PopCap games comes up in conversation, it’s hard not to instantly think about Plants vs. Zombies. Long before PopCap was trying to eat your brains, they created the addictive puzzle franchise Bejeweled. The game morphed over the years, from a Flash game, to a desktop game, to Xbox Live Arcade, and currently finds a home on both Facebook and iOS as the freemium title Bejeweled Blitz. If anyone every wanted a poster child for how to adapt to the changing world of casual gaming, the Bejeweled franchise makes a great candidate.

The ability for PopCap to continuously morph Bejeweled made Giordano Bruno Contestabile the perfect speaker for the second #JetCityMobile event, held last night at HasOffers. Giordano presented on the winning strategies for monetizing mobile apps.

I’m about to reveal the secret sauce PopCap uses to make money on all kinds of platforms, but before I do, be sure to watch Peter Hamilton’s interview with Giordano from last night’s event. The interview covers the importance of push notifications, along with the three methods PopCap uses to acquire users for Bejeweled Blitz.

The Power Of Freemium

One of the initial points Giordano made during his presentation is the importance of allowing people to play Bejeweled Blitz for free. The classic PopCap gaming model is to charge money for the download. This sounds risky on the surface, because offering a free-forever game could translate to lost revenue. PopCap found the opposite to be true. Since moving to a freemium model, PopCap now gets 9x the downloads they got before offering a free version, 5x the weekly average users, and 5x the daily average revenue. There’s more money in offering a casual game for free.

How Do Free Mobile Games Make Money?

How can you possibly make more money by giving something away? This isn’t a new concept. The bigger casual gaming brands like Zynga, Tiny Co., PopCap, and Kabam, all offer you a form of free play. They all offer upgrades intended to enhance the gaming experience in some way. Upgrades are where the money is made.

Bejeweled Blitz makes money three ways: Boosts, Rare Gems, and Daily Spins.

Boosts are low-priced in-game effects meant for frequent usage. They don’t create an excessive advantage for players who buy them, but can help make the game a little more competitive. Rare gems are both entertaining and higher impact, but require some skill for full benefit. The Daily Spin is a slot machine that grants in-game currency. Every player gets a daily free spin. Great players are still going to score bigger by being great players no matter which upgrades the elect to purchase.

As I see it, the Bejeweled approach is to charge for added entertainment, not charge to allow you to participate in the game at a higher level. I’ve played a number of MMORPG-style games where you couldn’t really compete if you weren’t willing to spend a bunch of money. Bejeweled isn’t taking this approach.

I think it’s important to see revenue models where mobile games are making money without strong-arming users into buying add-ons. Kabam offers another good example with the iOS version of Kingdoms of Camelot. You aren’t ever required to buy anything, but you may want to if you are too impatient to wait out the build time for upgrades to your kingdom.

Comparing iOS to Facebook

iOS and Facebook are the two biggest casual gaming platforms right now. Many of the successful freemium games for iOS got their start on Facebook. So how do the two platforms stack up?

In the world of Bejeweled Blitz, iOS outperforms Facebook in almost all metrics. iOS engagement is more than double Facebook, with an average of 52 games played per day. User retention on iOS is double Facebook. The percentage of users who pay is also double Facebook. Facebook has more active users each week, but that’s too be expected considering there are far more people on Facebook than there are iOS devices.

PopCap has done an effective job of combing the two platforms by using Facebook Connect to unlock additional features of the iOS version of the game. 25% of iOS users use Facebook Connect. Many new Facebook players are finding the game on iOS first and then playing on Facebook too.

How Does PopCap Keep Players Engaged?

How do you keep a group of users motivated to play your game? Bejeweled Blitz has a few key strategies.

  • Anyone can play the game for free forever.
  • The game is fun and balanced for non-paying players.
  • Payment is meant to increase the fun, not a relief from punishment.
  • Event-driven marketing keeps people coming back
  • Server-side tweaks change the economy in real time

Most of those are pretty obvious, but I think it’s worth calling out the server-side modifications. Giordano emphasized the importance of making sure any server side changes are always in favor of a better gaming experience for the user. In other words, if you are changing the economy, don’t jack up the price of in-game purchases in hopes of increasing your bottom line – create more value for the player.

The Secret PopCap Formula

As promised, the secret formula for PopCap’s success with Bejeweled Blitz is right here:

mF = ↑eng + ↑ret + ↑mon

If you’re not sure what that means, it translates to:
More fun = more engagement plus more retention plus more monetization. Translated into English that means when players are having fun, they will play, stay and pay.

Giordano insists that the formula is made up, but it makes sense to me. Focus on making sure you game is fun and users will love your game. While that sounds simple enough, I’ve played plenty of games that haven’t figured out this magic formula. And I couldn’t tell you which games, because I played them once and never returned.

How Do You Apply The PopCap Model To Your Own Game?

One of the most import points Giordano made last night was reminding game developers to never disappoint. Unlike a Las Vegas slot machine, that free Daily Spin in Bejeweled Blitz always pays out something. Bejeweled marketing events ultimately make the company money, but the focus is on reminding the user how much fun the game is. Paid upgrades are meant to be fun, not just a source of revenue for the company.

You can watch Giordano’s presentation here:

The question is, what are you doing to make your game more fun?

Jake Ludington
https://plus.google.com/100421655488973884511?rel=author

Jake Ludington has over a decade of experience building content publishing teams, coupled with more years as an affiliate marketer than he cares to admit. Follow Jake on Twitter.