'Puzzles and Dragons' Makes $12 Per Player, Five Times Its Closest Mobile Competitor

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Digital goods tracker SuperData has come out with a new report that reveals the top earning titles in the massive mobile games scene. Free-to-play mobile hits attract tens of millions of users, but then must figure out how to get those players to pay. As such, averaging even 50 cents to a dollar per user is quite good in the space, which is why the #1 spot in the report is so astonishing.

Superdata reports that GungHo Online Entertainment’s Puzzles and Dragons brings in $11.89 per user. That’s almost five times its closest competitor Big Fish Casino at $2.07 per user, and far more than genre staples like Supercell’s Clash of Clans ($1.31) and King’s Candy Crush Saga ($0.75). Here’s the full chart to get a better picture of the disparity.

What’s going on here? How has Puzzles and Dragons figured out a monetization strategy to pull so much cash out of its player base?

Last year, Gamasutra had a great article about top “tricks” of F2P monetization, and Puzzles and Dragons was front and center as one of the “state of the art” monetization games. Here the article talks about “Reward Removal” and why that’s such a powerful motivation technique for players to pay in the game.

“This technique is used masterfully in Puzzle and Dragons. In that game the play primarily centers around completing “dungeons”. To the consumer, a dungeon appears to be a skill challenge, and initially it is… The last wave is a “boss battle” where the difficulty becomes massive and if the player is in the recommended dungeon for them then they typically fail here. They are then told that all of the rewards from the previous waves are going to be lost, in addition to the stamina used to enter the dungeon (this can be 4 or more real hours of time worth of stamina).”

“At this point the user must choose to either spend about $1 or lose their rewards, lose their stamina (which they could get back for another $1), and lose their progress. To the brain this is not just a loss of time. If I spend an hour writing a paper and then something happens and my writing gets erased, this is much more painful to me than the loss of an hour. The same type of achievement loss is in effect here. Note that in this model the player could be defeated multiple times in the boss battle and in getting to the boss battle, thus spending several dollars per dungeon.”

It’s not the only way Puzzles and Dragons motivates players to pay, but it’s one of the most effective techniques. But many fans of the game come to its defense, saying it’s not one of the “evil” examples of free-to-play monetization through microtransactions. From the comments of that piece:

“Puzzle and Dragons excels in this capacity in essentially all of it’s monetization methods: every time a player monetizes, it’s because he WANTS to, not because he is FORCED to. Players spend inordinate amounts of money into the rare egg machine because they want stronger, rare monsters, not because they need them to survive. When you play Candy Crush Saga, you effectively reach a point where you feel forced to buy powerups – in Puzzle and Dragons, you are never forced into doing that.”

Speaking to a friend who has played the game avidly, he tells me he’s spent about $20, close to twice the average. But when asked if the game “forced” him to do so using cheap tricks, he admits that while some sections do seem outrageously hard and almost require paid power-ups, he maintains that it was fully his own decision to spend that money, and did it out of “want” rather than “need.”

Puzzles and Dragons has clearly gotten something very, very right, because it’s not as if you can just jam your game full of microtransactions and expect your average revenue per player to go up (cough, Dungeon Keeper). If the game design is too obviously heavily skewed to force you into the cash shop, players will often reject it. Rather, to create a true money making machine, you have to have players want to spend money without feeling like they’re constantly forced to in order to succeed.

It seems as if Puzzles and Dragons has effectively figured out this balance in a way that dramatically outstrips its competition. I’m curious to see how a newer mobile title, Hearthstone for the iPad, will do on a chart like this when next year rolls around. The only things you can buy in Blizzard’s card battling game are randomized packs of cards and tickets to the game’s Arena, both of which can also be earned through in-game gold. The microtransaction draw here is simple, but powerful, and as someone who normally spends nothing on free-to-play games, I’ve racked up $200 in card packs already. In talking to other fans, I’m not alone.

Still, there has to be more to this story to explain such an absolutely massive difference between Puzzles and Dragons and the rest of its competition, and I welcome additional clues from any avid players/big spenders. After all, just 0.15% of players make up 50% of mobile revenue, so Puzzles and Dragons must have quite a few whales in its customer base. Is the game just diabolical in its payment/gameplay structure, or is it offering something inescapably enticing to consumers?

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