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Types of game currencies in mobile free-to-play

Currencies are the pillar of any F2P in-game economy. But what types of currencies are out there, and which ones does your game need? In this article we examine the most widely used types of currency in mobile and f2p games.

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Currencies are the pillar of any real-world modern economy, since exchanges are done through them. Their objective is to be as universal and frictionless as possible, to make the system more efficient in allowing transactions.

Contrary to that, F2P games feature specialized currencies that have strict rules and limitations. Each in-game currency has been designed with a purpose: be it to push the player towards specific activities that will foster the fun, generate monetizable scarcity, provide a reason to come back later, or other.

This article aims to list the main types of in-game currencies, their uses, and general characteristics. The goal is to help you decide which ones would be appropriate for your game and which extra rules you should add to them — or even think of new hybrid mutations.

This is a follow-up of my article about IAP packs balance and design, which covers the relationship of in-game currencies with real world money. You may want to check that one out if you haven’t already!

Types of currencies and their purpose

First of all: What’s a currency?
I’m defining ‘currency’ as an element that has no use value in and of itself, but rather its main purpose and value comes from its ability to be exchanged for something else which has an actual use value.
So in accordance to this, I’m not considering currencies the following things:

  • Score metrics like Clash Royale’s Trophies. Even though trophies grant rewards when reaching certain milestones or at the end of a competition period, we could argue that the main purpose of Trophies is not to be exchanged, but to represent the player’s competitive prowess and progression.
  • Progression metrics like Experience Points or Player Level, which similarly are oriented towards representing (or gating) player progression within the game, rather than serving as a means to be exchanged.

But I will be considering currencies any resources or items whose purpose is accumulation to buy upgrades (like Clash Royale‘s cards… the first card of each type is to unlock the unit in gameplay, but after that point they’re a currency).

Also, note that the types are not mutually exclusive and some of the categories may in fact be subcategories of each other. For example, an event currency can be a hard currency, within the context of an event.

Based on those assumptions, I’m classifying currencies in 11 different categories(Though I’m sure the list is missing several so it may grow. If you spot what’s missing, let me know in the comments!). They are:

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1. Hard currency (AKA cash)

A hard currency is a high value currency which is primarily obtained through IAP and is closely related to monetization. Often it allows the player access to exclusive premium content. Examples would be the Gems on Brawl Stars, or the Gold Bars in Candy Crush Saga.

Hard currency is the closest thing to an universal medium of exchange, since it not only allows players to purchase content, but can also be exchanged for most of the other currencies — and indirectly allows players to obtain the means to get what they want:

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Gems in Brawl Stars allow players to buy content directly or exchange them for coins. And while trophies aren’t purchasable, the player can buy boxes which accelerate the acquisition of more brawlers and upgrades, that ultimately allow the player to move forward on the trophy count.

As a consequence, overflowing the economy with hard currency will diminish a game’s ability to generate situations of scarcity where the player needs to spend real money.

Because of this, sources of hard currency tend to be few and are under strict control — it’s a resource that generally doesn’t suffer inflation over the progression of the game.

A good way to check the health of an in-game economy is to check the sources of hard currency, and the amounts stored by paying and non-paying users. Increments on the player currency savings may indicate an imbalance on rewards, or perhaps the lack of valuable content to buy, or sinks.

Nevertheless, if used wisely and with measure, hard currency is an excellent reward because it’s extremely valuable for all the players, regardless of their progression or amount spent. This may not necessarily be true for other types of rewards (i.e. heroes, which may already be owned by the player, not valuable for competition, or below the level of the characters already owned by the player).

2. Soft currency (AKA coins)

A soft currency is a low value, general-purpose currency which is primarily obtained for free, either by playing or just waiting. Examples of this would be Credits in Call of Duty Mobile (the main reward for completing matches), or coins in Idle Miner Tycoon (which are automatically generated over time).

We all know about this one because it’s part of the dual-currency mechanism that has ruled the F2P model since before the times of Facebook games. The benefit of this dual model being that it’s a simple way to separate the content for non-paying users from the one that is premium and exclusive.

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Playrix ‘scapes series and Matchington Mansion feature a single currency, which is used on almost anything purchasable. So they only have soft currency. This requires a more strict control of incomes and outcomes to avoid devaluation, which would harm the need for players to monetize.

3. Medium currency

So what happens when you want a currency that players can grind with relatively ease without destroying your overall economy, but your soft currency is too soft to generate monetization around it? You create a mix, of course!

The medium currency is a currency obtainable through grinding, but which has some kind of limitation to their usage or accumulation.
This makes it more resilient to the devaluation that soft currencies tend to suffer due to their nature, while creating additional monetization opportunities around their limitations (storage expansions, refills, etc…).

Some games incorporate several of these gating mechanics to their soft currencies, in order to keep the game economy more under control.
This is a great idea to have a game economy that’s easy to manage, but incorporates clear friction points versus a standard model, which users may find unfair or frustrating.

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Our friends at Supercell are fond of adding limits to their soft currencies: In Clash of Clans the storage level determines the max amount of gold coins that can be owned. And both Clash Royale and Brawl Stars, have time-based caps to the amount of soft currency obtainable by playing.

Some examples of the gating that medium currencies may incorporate are:

Capped accumulation

This may range between a hard limit on how much currency can be stored (like Gold in Clash of Clans), or making harder the accumulation beyond a certain point (like the protection capacity of storages in Rise of Kingdoms).

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In Rise of Kingdoms, the accumulation of resources beyond the protection capacities of the Storehouse will be increasingly difficult due to the constant pressure of enemies raiding. This makes upgrading it extremely appealing, totally worth paying real money.

In most cases, this cap can be increased through successive upgrades or other purchases, which generates an additional — and highly valuable, in the player’s eyes — monetization point.

Capped acquisition

On the other hand, the limitation can be on how much the player can obtain within a specific period of time, rather than on how much it can be stored. The hard limits on currency acquisition on Clash Royale and Brawl Stars are good examples.

Contrary to the usage of energy, in those examples the player can still play after reaching the limit, but that won’t generate currency rewards.
This is well suited for multiplayer games, where there’s an interest in allowing long sessions so that the players keep on being content for the rest, but it lacks the monetization aggressiveness of energy.

Additional applications of this concept may include boosting the ratio of acquisition up until reaching a certain amount (which some items do in Brawl Stars and Wild Rift) or stopping the resource generation when reaching a certain point (like happens with energy in most games).

Limited usage

Another point where gates can be added is on the capacity of the currency to be exchanged into the game element that has the actual value.

For example, this can be because the player has to accumulate specific amounts before the currency can be used, or because multiple resources or additional requirements are required in order to allow the exchange — or because the points where the currency can be spent are few and limited.

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In Hay Day, lacking some of the upgrade materials means that the ones that are in surplus are useless. This is a strong incentive to pay for the missing resources in order to use the owned ones.
And in Township, population requirements act as a progression bottleneck, forcing the player to develop all the layers of the tycoon and progress, instead of focusing exclusively on accumulating coins by completing orders.

4. Energy currency

The defining characteristic of energy is that it’s exchanged exclusively for playing time. Usually it’s a price to be paid on every attempt or action (Monster Legends‘ Dungeons), or has to be paid on a retry (Candy CrushHomescapes).

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Either if it’s a strict cost per action like in Monster Legends, or a payment upon failure (to allow that the player can extend its play time through skill and luck), the objective of energy currencies is to gate the time that the player can spend in the game for free.

5. Feature currency

If your game features multiple activities which reward the same thing, players will naturally tend to orbit towards those that are more efficient for gaining rewards. For example, they’ll do Daily Dungeons instead of grinding the single player mode, because Dungeons grant more gold.

This is an issue, because each of those activities may ask the player different inventory requirements and styles of playing, which will make the game more interesting and also incentivize players to spend more on it. So, inadvertently enabling them to avoid less reward-generous activities can limit your overall ARPDAU and lead them to miss out on features that can add value to their gaming experience.

To avoid the likelihood of certain game activities from being overlooked by players, consider creating a currency that can only be obtained on specific modes.

Feature currencies have a very specific in-game usage, and are linked exclusively to a specific game activity. Some of the objectives may be:

  • To force the user to play a specific section of the game in order to be able to access a set of rewards, progression or upgrade axis.
  • To isolate an entire system from the rest of the in-game economy, in order to make it easier to manage, balance and analyze.
  • Limit access to a specific feature, whose over-usage might be detrimental for the economy.

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In War Dragons, making your dragons mate costs Breeding Tokens (and since every time you only have a chance to get the breed you wanted, those lusty lizards will cost you millions).
Since this resource is the exclusive gate to a key game mechanic, devs can use it as a reward to direct the player to any activity they want (missions, events, specific features…).

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Feature currencies are great to isolate the economy loop of entire features, therefore making them easier to analyze and maintain.
Idle RPGs like Idle Heroes feature many examples of features which introduce new, single-use currencies that force the player to go through specific activities to gather them.
For example, playing the Brave Trial is the only way to obtain Dragon Scales, the only currency accepted at the Trial Shop, which has some cool exclusive content.

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In Clash Royaleunrestricted trade among clanmates could severely monetization (i.e. players optimizing their drop rates, whales or hackers gifting everyone else…).
The solution is trade tokens, which are asked as an additional cost on the trades. Since access to them is heavily gated (a reward on special events, clan wars and offers), they make sure that this feature never gets out of control.

6. Social currency (AKA virality currency)

Social currency is a feature currency which aims to foster a specific game behavior of incentivizing virality, social interaction and connectivity inside the game.
It’s important to note that virality can actually have two meanings:

  • Bring new users via those who are already on the game (classic, K-factor virality).
    This is the one that most of us think the most with the word virality: players extending the contagion among people they already know outside of the game.
  • Incentivize interaction and connection between players that are already in the game, with the objective of boosting their engagement and retention (the neighboring or network effect).
    Usually, this is oriented towards players that are not related or friends outside of the game.

In general, social currencies in games are oriented towards the second example, since players bringing new players is not something that happens often enough to sustain a currency.

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In Puzzle & Dragons dungeons, your team is reinforced with a monster from another player. Doing so, as well as being selected by others, generates Pal Points (social currency), which grant monster egg rolls. And if you use players from your friend list, you get many more points.

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