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How to Make a Mobile Game That’s Profitable

Paolo Gambardella

Paolo Gambardella

Paolo is a game designer with 10+ years of experience working on various genres with a deep emphasis on free-to-play mobile games for studios such as Digital Chocolate and Scopely, among others. In his spare time, he shares his game design insights on his blog and podcast He currently consults upcoming studios on their game design and development execution.

So you’re thinking about shipping a mobile game. You’re definitely making a good bet.

In 2022, mobile gaming revenue take up 55% of the entire video game market share.

image14

(Credit: VirtualCapitalist)

As of 2024 it continues to grow exponetially at the fastest pace leaving VR, console and desktop games combined revenue growth in the dust.

In this guide, I will cover the entire process of how to make a free-to-play mobile game from ideation all the way to publish.

All the advice and suggestions are based on my experience designing and shipping 6 free-to-play mobile games in the past 10 years including hypercasual titles such as Level Up Runner by Lion Studio with over 10 million downloads where I was the lead game designer.

image2image13

This is based on my data-driven game design and development philosophy, which has served me well on all the mobile titles I’ve worked on.

Before we dive into the how, let’s first clarify…

What’s the difference between a mobile game and a console or desktop experience?

Here are the 4 major differences

1. Viewing distance: The average for phones are 16 inches and 20 inches for tablets comparing to average of 28” for desktop.

These distances will vary depending on the player’s vision, screen size of the phone and tablet.

image7

2. Screen size: The smaller phone and tablet screen size are much smaller than desktop monitor and large TV screens, so you have to account for that as a mobile game designer.

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(Credit: Microsoft)

Size class Breakpoints Typical screen size Devices Window Sizes
Small >640px 20″ to 65″ TVs 320×569, 360×640, 480×854
Medium 641 – 1007px 7″ to 12″ Tablets 960×540
Large > 1008px > 13″ PCs, Laptops, Surface Hub 1024×640, 1366×768, 1920×1080

3. FOV (Field of View): Because of the screen size differences, the FOV of the game also changes.

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(Credit: Unreal Engine forum)

4. Player controls: For mobile games, the phone and tablet are the controllers, which have dimension console controllers and mouse & keyboard setup doesn’t have. For example:

  • There is touch screen, where the player can interact with the game. (Can you imagine playing Fruit Ninja with mouse and keyboard?)
  • There is gravity sensor, where mobile racing games often use to simulate steering wheels.

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(Credit: Samsung)

This guide is specifically tailored for the context of F2P casual games like these:

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(Credit: mobilegamer.biz)

So, we’re not here to launch mobile Elden Ring like Tencent.

What is free-to-play (F2P) and why does that matter for mobile games development?

F2P or “free-to-play” is a video game business model that allows players to play parts of the game for free and later require players to make micropayments for premium features or virtual goods or monetize in other formats such as ad display.

This entire model optimizes for player acquisition by enticing the players to get invested in the game by allowing free gameplay.

So imagine an F2P game like an amusement park. People can come in for free to have a look and walk around and can choose whether to buy a ticket for an attraction or not.

But, why should you care?

This model is so effective that the almost 85% of the video game industry revenue are generated through this model (according to WePC).

image1

(Credit: Roundhill Investments)

On average, only 2-5% of players pay in a f2p game.

For example: If you have 1M people and pay 2%, you game will generate $20k in revenue.

Here are 3 f2p game monetization tips to optimize player retention and revenue generation:

1. Ensure significant spending depth. Meaning, allow more opportunities throughout the game to spend money.For example, if your game only allows a total of 100 euros of spending and your acquired 1 million players, then your revenue potential is capped at $5M.

2. Keep the game updated on these 4 vectors:

  1. Quality
  2. New features
  3. Progress
  4. Onboarding

Make sure you keep a calendar of updates and events to address these so you can retain your players as long as possible, like this:

.

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3. Make sure it’s free to so people don’t pay to install the game. That’s the whole point. The studio will have to front the player acquisition costs.

How do you actually make a mobile game?

Phase 1: Set realistic scope and expectations for your mobile game

Over the years I have noticed a problematic trend. Many approach F2P in a naïve way, but it requires a considerable amount of strategy and organization.

Big companies with enormous investments behind work to create successful services. This makes the market highly competitive.

On the surface, it might seem likeif we offer the opportunity to play for free, people will come. The reality is that when a game is free, your time will become the currency.

The Game as a Service (Gaas) market, online games with regular events and updates, has grown a lot. This has led to companies competing downwards to secure a pool of players.

The data shows that it is very difficult to unseat the leaders of a services market. Players remain attached to a game in which they can build and maintain progress. The more time passes, the more difficult it will be to make them migrate to another game.

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This is the typical player retention curve. If we have 1,000 installs, day after day some people will abandon the game. This happens very quickly at first, but well-designed games have a long tail.

Every year I notice new comers and champions appear who didn’t exist before. This is because services age in the eyes of players. This leads the most skilled developers to identify interesting gaps to fill. Some succeed, and some take a step back. And this opens up new opportunities.

If you want to approach the design of a F2P game, you need to use a pseudo-scientific method. You need to make hypotheses and experiments on the data at your disposal. You don’t need a vision from the beginning and focus on that. Rather, you work on assumptions to achieve concrete and measurable objectives.

Game design helps not only to find rules, systems, interactions, and feedback. Also to interpret game data (metrics) and business data (KPIs, key performance indicators).

The ultimate goal is to make a mobile game that lasts a decade.

How long will your mobile game development take?

The world of mobile gaming is exciting and very complex. There are two modes:

  1. Make games in a very short time (3 months) and test the market in the hope of generating profits in a short time
  2. Thinking in a service model that last for years. Decide where, how, and when to open the doors of the service. Run concrete studies on the distribution and acquisition of players.

I’ve never seen games become successful in less than 5-10 years. By successful I mean being profitable. By being profitable I mean that the amount left after all costs.

In the case of Level Up Runner, for instance, we worked 2 months on the first version of the game, but it started making more profit 1 year later. And in that case it was hypercasual.

You need to focus on measuring potential success at every step:

  • Discovery: Looking for the right opportunity is no small feat. Empathize with players of a certain genre and theme. Then look for concrete data on which to focus your attention.
  • Soft launch: Release the game for a specific region of the world. Plan the necessary operations and improve it before launch
  • Global launch: Open the game to the whole world once it’s ready.

In each of these steps, there is a possibility that you may have to cancel the game.

Maintaining a game has costs, if the game is not profitable you could sink your company.

That’s why the best companies in the world are those who understand when to cancel a title.

How much does it cost to make a mobile game?

You have development and marketing costs to keep in mind. In premium games, marketing invests 30% of the revenue expected from the sale of the game.

In free-to-play it doesn’t work like that. Acquisition campaigns have regular expenses. A team spends at least as much on marketing as it spends on production.

As a starter, think in the following costs structure:

Mode Marketing Total Cost Final (with Epsilon)
1 (3 months) 30% of expected revenue TC1 = (Monthly production cost + 30% of expected revenue)*3 TC1 * 1.2
2 (5-10 years) 30% of expected revenue TC2 = (Monthly production cost + 30% of expected revenue)*(12*7) TC2 * 1.2
1 Same as production TC3 = (Monthly production cost * 2) * 3 TC3 * 1.2
2 Same as production TC4 = (Monthly production cost * 2)*(12*7) TC3 * 1.2

The final column is meaningful because you need to consider a 20% error on your estimations

Can you complete the project as a solo game developer?

If you dedicate yourself to a free-to-play mobile project without prior experience, I advise you to maintain the right mindset. Developing a mobile game is not just about implementing game mechanics and creating graphic assets.

Many frameworks need to be integrated that serve to measure and operate the game. Implementing these frameworks requires intensive quality control work.

A new version of Framework A could conflict with the previous version of Framework B. You must arm yourself with patience and a desire to learn. If you’re in a hurry to get results, mobile f2p may not be for you. You will need:

  • Game engines: I recommend Unity to get you started
  • Server/database: Like Google Firebase
  • Integrate Google and Apple payment systems
  • Performance, for example, AppLovin
  • Events and offers, I know UserWise
  • Analytics dashboard, you can use Tableau
  • Stack for networking/multiplayer/matchmaking (in the case of multiplayer games)
  • Authentication and login services
  • QA, test automation, crash logging, and debugging
  • Deployment services
  • Billing services (not only in-app purchases but also receipt validation and fraud prevention).

Unity includes an asset store to purchase entire game systems, graphics, and sound assets. Since graphics are one of the most expensive things ever, I recommend you always take a peek.

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Unity’s asset store is also a quick way to understand what assets you must develop when writing a design. I always look through it to understand the animations, effects, and textures necessary to develop the feature I’m designing.

People on their smartphones are looking for games that are very different from those they are looking for on other platforms.

Mobile is a device not designed for playing games but for apps and communications.

We play games on our smartphones for three main reasons:

  1. Relax, take a moment of disconnection and tranquility without making too many cognitive efforts
  2. Progress, feeling that they are growing: overcoming levels, achieving new powers, completing missions
  3. Socializing, feeling that I am part of a community of people who, like us, are looking for a moment of disconnection.

Some core gamers buy separate controllers, but that’s not the majority. On average, we want to be in the experience within 15 seconds, max.

Phase 2: Make a basic version of your game

As mentioned before, creating a f2p mobile game means integrating many services. This could lead to introducing glitches and problems in the game. The first phase is the technical test.

Here is an example of a the stage of the prototype you want to be at:

Notice how much the latest version of Brawl Stars changed from the 2022 version?

The goals of this phase are

  1. Test the stability of the game. The metric used is the crash rate.
  2. Test the data collection framework we have put in place and of course.
  3. Identify and fix critical bugs.

To do this we need a small number of players and a system that will allow us to control the quality of the game determined by

  • Stability (crash rate)
  • Defects (bug fixes)
  • Data collection (analytics).

I recommend looking for players in countries where fewer sales of in-game purchases are expected. We don’t need the highest quality players, since the goals are technical.

This phase should last a maximum of a month.

Phase 3: Keep improving through constant iterations

When you’re done ironing out all the technical details, it’s time to ramp up  player retention by constantly iterating your gameplay.

Retention is very important because player acquisition campaigns are aimed at recovering and profiting from the investment takes at least a year to recover.

The most relevant retention numbers to consider are:

  • Tutorial Completion Rate: Percentage of players who complete the entire tutorial
  • Onboarding Flow: Percentage of players who go through all the key stages of the first gaming experience
  • Day 1 Retention (D1): Total number of players returning 24 hours after first playing.
  • Day 7 Retention (D7): Total number of players returning 7 days after the first time.
  • Day 30 Retention (D30): we get it!

For every genre of game, it is possible to find information and data to consider and measure yourself against. Much of the design work is to optimize these numbers, but they are not the only ones.

Even if the majority of companies and investors only consider D1, D7, and D30, these numbers can lead to misinterpretation of the data. Let’s imagine you are a player of our game.

For example, even if the players like your game, they may have a very important commitment the next day and won’t be able to play. D1 retention becomes a misleading metric.

A more effective way to look at retention is with the metrics CURR, NURR, and RURR.

Before our brains start to boil, let’s take it slow.

Let’s say t is the moment we are in now. If we want to check 24 hours ago, t-1. If we want, instead, 10 days ago, t-10.

Now let’s apply this to all 3 retention metrics::

  1. Current User Retention Rate (CURR): All players who played the game between t-14 and t-20 (2 weeks ago) at least once. Among these, we select those who played last week (t-7 to t-13). Of these, we are interested in the % of those who played this week (t-0 to t-6).
  2. New User Retention Rate (NURR): All players who played the game last week (t-7 to t-13). Of these, we are interested in the % of those who played this week (t-0 to t-6).
  3. Returning User Retention Rate (RURR): All players who did NOT play between t-7 and t-13 (last week). What percentage returned this week (t-0 to t.-6)

Many design decisions behind these games heavily data-driven.

When you make data driven design decisions based on these metrics, your game’s player rention will inevitably increase.

Phase 4: Work on graphics, art and sounds

Each game features graphics, art, and sounds. There are concrete challenges for each of these fields.

I recommend you consider abstract, realistic, and cartoon. Think about your game in these 3 versions and make quick acquisition tests. Your goal is to understand which style will lead you to get players with less budget.

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(Credit: Dream Farm Studios)

I highly recommend you to start with premade art assets, especially for secondary assets.

So if you’re creating background vegetation from scratch it’s probably not worth the development resource allocation.

For example, majority of the hyper casual mobile games for I helped develop for Appidea Games are made with assets from the Unity asset Store.

Art is among the most expensive things in production.

And asset stores from Unity and other popular engines offer a lot of content in the three styles I’ve mentioned.

When it comes to sound design, try to find sounds that are not too intrusive and make it very intuitive for the players to turn them off.

In the context of mobile games, sounds help improve the game feel. However, players often deactivate their sounds to not to disturb the environment around them.

So make sure you gameplay has low dependency on sound.

Phase 5: Optimize for monetization

Now that you have a more polished gameplay with longer player retention, it’s time to make sure your game can monetize your players.

It varies from studio to studio, but in general here are all the components involved when designing a game’s monetization:

  • Game designers design the dynamics that would lead players to pay
  • Product managers decide prices and commercial strategies
  • Analysts help understand what players do in the game and what the most interesting points are

For example, the monetization team for the last mobile game studio I’ve consulted with is structured like this

  • A product manager, that works on the game
  • One game designer (me)
  • 2 Programmers
  • 3 Game artists
  • 1 User acquisition specialist
  • 1 Motion video specialist for creatives

You need to think about the spend depth of your game first. Assuming that a player wants to buy everything, think about how much he could spend. This is not an easy calculation, but you need to know the potential of your game and make sure you improve it.

Players decide to pay when they see real value. There are three key pockets of value in any free-to-play game.

  1. Pain points: you were almost there, you could have passed the level, but the movements are over. Buy extra moves instead of starting all over again.
  2. Extras: some games link certain actions to certain resources (energy, lives). If they run out and you want more, pay. Other games provide basic secondary content (skins): if you want more, pay.
  3. Time savers: as mentioned at the beginning of the article, time is the currency of free-to-play games. If you sell things that save money, someone might buy them.The classic example is when you have to complete a construction and you can use virtual coins to finish immediately and continue.

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All these virtual goods can be served as

  • In-app purchases: the store (Google or Apple) will take a percentage
  • Ad monetization: you are giving a game for free and the vast majority of players will not spend a dime
  • Subscriptions: battle pass is very common

Conclusion

Making new games can be a wicked challenge, but the good news is that you can do it. You need to think about motivations, metrics, and how to create your business inside of the game.

In conclusion, read these three articles and make yourself a clearer image of what you need to focus on:

  1. What drives retention, by Raph Koster
  2. My most valuable retention KPI, by Lloyd Melnick
  3. Do you know your game spend depth? By Matthew Emery

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Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan