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One Key Retention Mechanic Modern Mobile Games Can Learn From Dragonvale's Early Success

An attempt to expose Dragonvale's key retention mechanism and how it could relate to successful retention in modern mobile games.

Tyson McCann, Blogger

January 26, 2016

10 Min Read

Rise of Dragonvale

When Dragonvale released in the late half of 2011, it almost immediately started its meteoric rise up the charts, eventually ousting Angry Birds to become the king of the top grossing iPhone games and further offering proof that the free-to-play (F2P) model can be extremely lucrative and is here to stay. For a solid few years, even after Clash of Clans’ dominant rise in mid/late 2012, Dragonvale rested in the top 20, and even much later, now in 2016, it maintains a consistent and respectful average in the top 100 apps on iPhone (and Android) for top grossing. Since then there have been many semi-profitable knock offs, and I’ve even designed one myself in the same spirit.

This chart illustrates just how strong Dragonvale has been as a top grossing app over its lifetime.

Dragonvale Defined

Without going into much detail, Dragonvale is a breeding and city builder game with a singular focus and emphasis: collection. Players start with a floating island, a couple of different elemental-themed habitats that can hold a dragon or more in a zoo-like capacity, and are allowed to hatch a couple for free to start off. Here’s where it gets interesting. Players can take any dragon they have, “breed” it with any other, wait a variable amount of time, and receive a new dragon. The new one will be either of the same elemental type as one of its parents, or even a hybrid of multiple types. Now there’s also a farming side mechanic is used to level dragons to “adulthood” to not only earn more passive income, but is also a requirement for breeding (so some sense of realism exists), however its main function is to re-engage and monetize as an appointment mechanic (e.g., time-based) on its own. Essentially, to breed more dragons all players need is time, which can be monetized, and luck, which can be mitigated with many attempts or stronger matches.

Once breeding is complete, out pops a new dragon that can be added to a habitat (and thus displayed for others to see), re-bred, sold, etc. And hopefully with a little (or a lot of) luck there’s a nice new dragon to add to your beautiful, surreal floating island world. Here, the setting reinforces the theme. Wizards, teleports, magic, lush greenery with waterfalls, it’s all a gorgeous setting for what’s really an exceptionally simplistic, but focused collection game. 

The Key Mechanic

What exactly is it about Dragonvale that made it such a paragon in the casual F2P market? Well, there are trends now that many designers and companies are well aware of and attempt to build into their monetization scheme: randomness, rarity, and variable session rewards - that is, getting rewarded only sometimes, and at random creates more compulsion than fixed rewards. Yet when examining Dragonvale even more deeply, there seems to be one related element which, when combined with those other important factors, could be key. It is also shared largely by another hugely popular and engaging game, Diablo. It’s the element of the “always on” spin.

Nearly anyone who’s visited a casino, in real life or as a game, is familiar with the “jackpot” mechanic of slot machines. Insert the max coins (credits now…) and hope that the lucky symbols line up, whether 7’s or piles of gold or Wheel of Fortune symbols, and you can become instantly wealthier. The important factor though is that this can happen on every spin. Dragonvale uses this exact same mechanic. In Dragonvale, players are “spinning” constantly for a jackpot, and most often will have two “machines” going at a time. Most importantly, they are spinning when not even in the game. So while players are busy with real life, their dragons are sitting in their love nest happily breeding and when players get back they hope to return to a jackpot - or in this case, something new to add to their permanent collection. 

While out of the game and busy in real life, players don’t just look forward to coming back to collect currency as in many/most games, though this is certainly one aspect of Dragonvale’s re-engagement. More importantly they are actually able to look forward to the time when they get to come back and check whether they’ve won. It’s “always on”, just like the pull of a handle on a slot machine. Players, especially casual players, can have a better feeling about coming back even while away, knowing that they have a chance of hitting the jackpot and adding something new to their collection.

In Diablo, the “always on” spin mechanic is a long-proven element that’s built within the core gameplay itself. During any particular short-spanned run (which is important as it makes every session potentially profitable), players kill a number of roaming monsters, each with its own loot table, and will always encounter several that have a chance to drop a jackpot “unique” or legendary item, or even great rare item that may help replace any piece of gear and make them stronger. In Diablo, with every run, even though the chance is low, there’s always a possibility of hitting the jackpot.  While other games, including recent ones do feature loot drops with rarity to some extent, many dole this out in very small increments where several rarity-based puzzle pieces add to the whole. In Dragonvale, nearly every session can potentially net a new trophy, and in Diablo a piece of usable gear you can physically see. It’s addictive, and re-engaging, and as there are so many dragons to find, almost never-ending. Playing Dragonvale is a lot like playing Diablo, only in one very long continuous session.

Dissection of a Successful and Current Collection-type Game

To support the idea of an “always on” spin mechanic helping a current game monetize, I’ll delve into some of the methods used in a popular collection-type game in a highly-competitive mid-core niche. I’ll examine how on the surface it may lack the “always on” mechanic, but due to some clever retention methods it actually functions in a very similar way.

In Heroes Charge, a consistent highly ranked and top money maker in its mid-core niche as a tactical / action / RPG / hero collection game, the ultimate goal is to collect, assemble, and grow a team of five unique and powerful heroes (usually of the highest rarity) so that you as a player can prove your superiority in PvP as well as to your guild. Essentially the game is focused on collecting but has other key ingredients such as modern social multiplayer and clan-based mechanics to keep the hard-core players engaged in the long tail. 

One key tactic used by engaged players to get the heroes with highest rarity is to save up enough premium currency to buy a “box” of 10 spins. By buying in bulk, the game throws in a bit extra - it guarantees at least one actual “hero” drop, which may or may not be be a jackpot (rare or unclaimed) hero, depending on the player’s inventory. The downside of course, is that in order to buy the expensive purchase players must first, over the course of several days, build up enough premium currency, which generally takes a lot of grinding. Or, if impatient they can simply buy a single “spin” for a hero with less currency and may not end up with one at all. Thus most players opt to save.

To offset this large delay, Heroes Charge uses an amazing (and genius in my opinion) trick.  It allows players to buy a value-priced “card” (weekly, monthly, yearly) that provides a daily stream of premium currency influx, which over the course of the allotted time amounts to an incredibly better deal than if you were to buy premium currency outright. 

Not only does a guaranteed steady stream help with the very important 1st conversion (almost a no-brainer if you plan to invest any amount of time into the game), but it also ties neatly into the “always on” spin as sort of a middle ground approach. The reason this is true is that at least players know that without any other work on their part, due to this not-insignificant amount of influx - and over just several days of logging in or less if they’ve already accumulated some - they will have enough premium currency for a jackpot spin.  And, with a little work, this could happen much sooner (which is not atypical in games). While every session may not net them a unique hero to build and grow, they still know that they’re automatically building toward a potential jackpot without the need for a daily grind… and therefore are able to look forward to that piece of it when logging in.

Another way Heroes Charge lends a better sense of “always on” and an incentive for coming back every day is to reset certain playable sections on a daily basis that provide players a chance at a jackpot hero. The Crusade, for example, allows for players to - rather quickly (as in it’s beatable in a session) and once per day - defeat a gauntlet of encounters that could result in either a jackpot rare Hero drop outright, or at the very least provide a consistent influx of specific tokens with which to buy them. This means that at least once a day one of their sessions can lead to a jackpot, and thus is one significant reason to login. 

Then there is a daily bonus in the form of PvP rewards, which are consistent daily tokens based on your ranking that can be used for unlocking new Heroes outright. As long as you keep your PvP ranking at a minimum level, players are guaranteed enough tokens over time to buy and upgrade the hero of their choice. While this is a bit more like grinding, it is not directly tied to any particular PvP result and is simply a bonus players receive for logging in after a certain time - players earn this regardless of whether playing PvP actively that particular day. 

Yet another are the VIP bonuses for engaged players. As players invest in the game or IAP higher VIP levels unlock daily accumulations of tickets and extra chances for various parts of the game. These are designed to instantly break the normal grinding rules and allow players to continue playing or trying for smaller jackpot accumulations of hero shards or other currency.

Finally, there’s the mainstay of most games of this type, the standard daily login reward, which over 30 days guarantees a brand new and reasonably upgraded hero every month.

Overall, the game provides several smaller streams all leading to re-engagement and a payoff when logging back in at various times per day. It’s this diverse approach to monetization but with the key idea being there’s always a potential jackpot reason to login, which - speaking from experience - I assert is a key reason that keep players coming back - always something potential to add to their collection.

The Importance of “Always On”

To summarize, why is the “always on” jackpot spin important in a collection game (and is it also important in other types)? It means there is always a jackpot-like reason to come back, other than simply collecting resources. It’s not “work” to come back. It’s not quite but more like a privilege. Players know when they come back there can be something magical waiting, just like at the end of a pull in a slot machine. This is most certainly not the case in most other games, where coming back most often simply means they collect and then must grind for their new gear.

It’s well known that collection, rarity, and randomness can significantly help retain, especially when adding to a collection meta-goal. However it might be worth thinking about if your game has an “always on” spin approach, or where you can lean toward inserting something like that, even if it’s in moderation, as seen in the successful Heroes Charge. 

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