Designing Mobile Games for Retention and Monetization

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Kevin Ford

September 22nd, 2015

Last week at Casual Connect in San Francisco, I spoke with a representative from another ad network at our booth and in conversation, she excitedly said, “Hey, we just went native too!”  She then showed me one of her sample interstitials and we began discussing what it takes to be considered a “native ad.” During our conversation, we came to the conclusion that there are multiple interpretations of the term “native advertising.” I invited her to attend a session later that day with NativeX co-founder, Rob Weber where he would be discussing the topic of “designing mobile games for retention and monetization.” As part of this session, Rob was planning to explain how to apply design principles to in-app ads to create a natural integration with the overall app experience.

The session went really well and in case you weren’t able to attend, here is an overview of the key points, including tips for improving the visually native aspect of ads through basic design principles. As noted in his presentation, some developers are leaving money on the table and a few minor design tweaks could easily double their revenue.


Hook your players with an incredible first-time user experience

As you all know, the foundation of a successful game is strong retention and engagement. Over 30% of users who install a game app will play once and never return. To help developers retain their users, Rob suggests that developers optimize their games for the first-time user experience (FTUE).

This can be done in three simple ways:
1) Guide players through the natural progression of the game
2) Reward players with positive reinforcement
3) Allow players to customize their profiles and personas

These aren’t ground breaking suggestions, they’re known best practices, but many developers miss them. Think of ways to include a tutorial in some form or another; it’s essential for showing new players the ropes and for introducing new challenges. Then give your players the ability to build profiles so they feel a sense of ownership and build an emotional attachment to the game.

Improve the ad experience with basic design principles

Once you have “wowed” your players with an excellent first-time user experience, you should apply the six design principles to your ad presentations. Doing so will make them feel more like “game moments” than interruptions to gameplay, ultimately boosting your ad revenue.

As you can see in the example below, small improvements can lead to big gains in just over a month. Recently a top grossing game developer worked with NativeX to triple their eCPM by modifying the design of their interstitials. The developer was able to run experiments, applying the NativeX design principles and iterating on the fly with NativeX’s server-side ad technology. As a result, eCPMs increased from $2.36 to $8.62 without any additional coding. (Note that for confidentiality purposes the mockup below was created)



To achieve similar gains, game developers can leverage NativeX’s six design principles for their ad frames:

NativeX Design Principles

  1. Native Design: use characters and elements from the game to create surprise and an immersive experience built for engagement.

  2. Lines and Encapsulation: emphasize the most important elements of the ad, such as the call to action.

  3. Movement: use subtle animation of characters, transitions or a subtle color pulse on the call to action button to capture attention and interest. (Note that too much movement may cause delays in load time or may be distracting and annoying. Less is more.)

  4. Color and Contrast: use vivid colors to attract attention.

  5. Associations: using in-game characters will help build trust and create positive associations.

  6. Eyes and Gaze Direction: use the direction of your characters’ gaze, body and arms to draw attention to the ad and call to action.  Your users will look where your character is looking or pointing.

For more reading on the NativeX design principles, check out Rob Weber’s article that was published on The Next Web. In it he explains how to build effective mobile ads without irking your users.

If you want to learn more, Rob recommended a couple books in his session for further reading on emotional design: Seductive Interaction Design by Stephen P. Anderson and Design for Emotion by Trevor van Gorp.

Monetizing VIP Payers and Free Players

Lastly, Rob advised game developers to think of paying players as “VIPs at a nightclub.” He stated, “it’s essential to create an exceptional experience for both sets of players (those who pay for content and those who play for free), but you have to recognize that people who pay for a service expect more.” Offer the VIPs an incredible experience that will keep them coming back. At the same time, try to win over the non-payers by giving them rewards that teach them the value and benefits of the items available for purchase.

To help developers convert non-paying players into payers, NativeX just launched a new ad format that uses deep linking to send players to the in-app purchase store. This new ad looks like a menu, offering players the opportunity to go to the IAP store or to consume a rewarded video ad, giving players the option to visit the store or earn currency when they need it most. This helps developers monetize regardless of whether a player spends money, or chooses to be rewarded by engaging with an ad. In early customer trials, more than 10 percent of players have clicked through to the games’ in-app stores to make purchases. More details about the new format exclusive to NativeX can be found here.


If you would like to learn more about designing your mobile game for retention and monetization, Tweet@robertjweber or @nativeX and we’d be happy to answer your questions. If you’re ready to start working with NativeX, hit us up here.

Kevin Ford

Marketing Manager


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