Are You Punishing Players Who Pay? Rethinking Monetization Strategies.

Rethinking Monetization Strategies that Are Choking Valued Players Out of Your Game.

I am proud to be a ‘whale’ when it comes to free-to-play mobile games. (That means I am a player who is willing to pay for in-app purchases that help my enjoyment and progression in the games I play.) But lately, some free-to-play games have made me feel punished for paying.

Game Monetization Strategies

Game Monetization Strategies

To explain, let me share a bit of background. I used to be a big console gamer in my youth. But now that I have a family with three young kids, it’s hard for me to find time to play console games anymore. And when I do play them, I end up being destroyed by younger players who are far more skilled than me. Not fun.

So, free-to-play mobile (F2P) games now fill that gaming void in my life. I play a range of games – match 3s, arcade-style, endless runners, and tower defense; or I’ll check out whatever is trending on the charts regardless of the genre. I am quite willing to buy virtual currency or items in mobile games, as long as they add value to my playing experience. If paying a buck or two helps me crush a friend, upgrade my character, or finally get through an unbeatable level, it’s worth every penny to me.

Value Exchange Video Ads

Value Exchange Video Ads

But, I also really like having ad-funded options like watching a video to earn extra currency, as that gives me an opportunity to improve my playing experience without always having to open up my wallet. In fact, I often find that the ad-funded options to earn currency enhance my gameplay, as I can advance in the game more quickly than I otherwise could, which generally causes me to purchase items more frequently than I typically would. Rewarding me for my attention is a positive bonus that I welcome that makes me feel good about paying because I don’t feel forced to pay to play.

But there is a recurring monetization strategy that makes users stop playing. We are literally choked out of games we that we otherwise enjoy playing. How? After I make my first in-app purchase and become a player who paid for content, I am considered converted to their “paying player” monetization strategy. At this point, many games now choose to eliminate any free ad options I have that allow me to earn currency going forward. So I no longer get the same extra bonuses other non-paying players get unless I pay every time. Ugh! As a player, why should I be penalized and no longer have ad-funded options the minute I become a payer?

Logically, developers may feel that if they identify users who are willing to pay for a premium experience, that they need to remove free rewards which should push those paying players to buy more. But it’s flawed logic. First, if a user feels cheated or that the game is shaking him down for more money because he is an easy target, he will leave your game with a bad taste in his mouth. Second, there may be a misconception that users prefer ad-free games, when the reality is that many find the ad-funded options a benefit to gameplay and would encourage more ad-sponsored options to improve the free gaming experiences.

Here are just a couple of player reviews I found from some popular mobile games talking about rewarded ads and video.

“Great game! I love run games. Huge Tomb Raider fan… Yes there are ads but they don’t last long and it doesn’t interrupt game play and I love the idea of watching a ad video to revive. Works for me every time.”
M.W. June 13, 2015 (Google Play Review: Lara Croft: Relic Run)

“I really like the way they do their advertising. No banner ads to accidentally click on, no mandatory videos to watch…just a 15 sec optional video at the end of every level that rewards you with a difficulty-linked amount of in-game money if you choose to watch it.”
Nependerp, Jan 4, 2015 (Google Play Review: Tower Madness 2)

“This is one of my favourite games…Thank you for adding the new way to get extra moves with gold. It shows that you have been listening to our reviews.”
D.M. June 5, 2015 (Google Play Review: Best Fiends)

As “Crossy Road” co-creator Andrew Sum stated in a recent article, “Treat your players with respect. Make a game that people will want to share, and encourage them to come back tomorrow.”

So, in order to monetize me, you need to respect me. You can’t cut off the bonus offers you give to non-paying gamers just because I have paid once. Don’t punish me for purchasing and I’ll happily keep coming back to play.

Rob Weber,
CEO, NativeX

* NativeX is a provider of monetization and / or user acquisition solutions for the games mentions in this post, including Crossy Road, Lara Croft: Relic Run, Tower Madness 2, and Best Fiends

Apple is now rejecting iOS games which contain adverts that mention other platforms

[Originally posted on, April 21st 2015]

Apple’s App Store Review guidelines for developers state “Apps or metadata that mentions the name of any other mobile platform will be rejected”

Developers have recently seen Apple enforcing this policy – not for the app’s name, content or metadata, but for their monetization solutions.

These apps are rejected for showing ads that feature references to other mobile platforms.

Developers are told they will not be approved until all tags, references and images related to Google Play and Windows Store are removed from the ads.

Continue to read the full post here

NativeX Launches New Video Ad Format

Sponsored Post

Introducing a new Mini Multi-Offer ad format “Triad.” Triad combines the latest mobile video ad technology with NativeX’s industry leading selection of native advertising formats to give users the choice of which ads to engage with. Triad joins the NativeX Discovery Suite to give developers the right ad format to optimize strategic placements in their apps for a more native experience with higher impact.

Read the Full Post Here.

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NativeX names new CEO and launches multi-offer mobile video ads

[Originally posted on VentureBeat, March 12th 2015]

NativeX, a maker of ad technology for mobile games, has named its cofounder Rob Weber as its new chief executive. On top of that, the company told GamesBeat that it is launching its new Triad video ad format that offers mobile gamers their choice of which video ads to view.

Weber, who previously headed business development, replaces Andy Johnson, who will remain chairman. Weber cofounded W3i with his twin brother Ryan in 2007. In 2013, they rebranded the company as NativeX to focus on native advertising, or ads that are built into mobile games and appear to be a natural part of the app itself. Andy Johnson joined the company in 2007 to head the PC business, and he was appointed CEO in early 2014 to help bring more big-company discipline to NativeX.

In an interview with GamesBeat, Weber said that he prefers a flat management style, and he may make some changes to the organization as a result. He also hired Mike Wallin, formerly of PlayPhone, as vice president of business development as Weber’s replacement. Ryan Weber remains chief product officer.

Continue to read the full post here

Data Science, the Latest Weapon in Mobile Monetization [GamesBeat 2014]

Will Harbin Kixeye CEO & Rob Weber NativeX

Kixeye CEO Will Harbin and NativeX Co-Founder Rob Weber speak at GamesBeat 2014 in San Francisco.

[Originally posted on NativeX Voices September 16th 2014]

This week NativeX participated in the 6th annual GamesBeat conference. Organized by VentureBeat, GamesBeat is one of the leading events in the mobile games industry, gathering “top execs, investors, analysts, and entrepreneurs from the hottest companies to explore the gaming industry’s latest trends and newest monetization opportunities.”

The theme of this year’s GamesBeat was “Total World Domination,” focusing on gaming’s journey to becoming the dominant medium of entertainment. As part of the discussion, NativeX Co-Founder, Rob Weber shared the stage with Kixeye CEO, Will Harbin. Together, they talked about data science and its role in mobile app monetization from the perspectives of an ad network and a F2P gaming studio.


VentureBeat described the session by stating, “as the mobile market continues to grow and mature, the conversation around making money has become something fans hate to hear and developers despise discussing. The industry has changed to the point where “casual gamer” is being re-defined and companies are learning how to cater to consumers accustomed to receiving content for free.”

Highlights from the session are below in quotes for those who couldn’t make it to San Francisco for GamesBeat and didn’t catch the live broadcast on Twitch:


Rob Weber: “Our data science team looks at thousands of variables and analyzes the predictive value of each one — basically A.I. [artificial intelligence]. Then they boil down the data to 15-20 key indicators that tell us which ad and ad format has the best chance of converting for each player.”

Will Harbin: “I can’t fully speak to what our data scientists are doing now but I wrote the original algorithms. Now they just wake me up for the important meetings. At this point we only use data science half the time. A year ago, we probably were doing way too much, you know, data-driven decision-making. I think that hurt us in some ways. Now we’re probably going to err on the side of doing something which is fun even if the data doesn’t justify it.”

Rob Weber: “We built our own data science systems at NativeX. To get the ball rolling, we hired an experienced Chief Data Scientist, Dr. James Shanahan. Then he hired a full team of 14 data scientists, many with PhDs.”

Will Harbin: “LTV is sort of a chicken / egg problem for mobile game developers. You need to collect a lot of data to get it right. This makes it nearly impossible for developers starting out with their first game. At Kixeye, we are very conservative about measuring lifetime value (LTV). For example, our average retention is well over two years but we estimate it to be just nine months.”

Rob Weber: “If game developers can earn a few dollars from the 90 percent of non-payers, that can go a long way to share the burden of payers who are shouldering the cost for these games.”

Will Harbin: “Too many F2P games focus on whale spending. Pay to win is not a sustainable model for the games ecosystem.”

Rob Weber: “It’s inevitable that bigger AAA game developers are going to create separation over indies through the use of data science. That’s why we’re building the tools they need to compete.”

For more quotes from Rob Weber and Will Harbin, check them out on Twitter @robertjweber and @willharbin

Increasing In-App Revenue with Metric Driven Design and Emotional Targeting

Here is a 25 minute lecture I gave at Casual Connect in San Francisco on July 20014. The focus is on how to leverage metric driven design and emotional targeting to improve the performance of your mobile app or game.

Following Glu’s Kardashian Success, 6 Celebrity Games I’d Like to Play

[Originally posted on NativeX Voices September 3rd 2014]

Partnering with a controversial and social media savvy celebrity like Kim Kardashian can save game developers hundreds of thousands of dollars in user acquisition. You have an immediate advantage over other games because of the likeness of the celebrity, their ability to promote your game, and the impact their brand has on editors from the various app stores who like to feature games with popular figures.

This strategy can also backfire because celebrities are really expensive and some of them might not be receptive to your ideas. They also might get caught up in a scandal right after you release the game. With that said, the astronomical success of Glu’s Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has more developers thinking about creative ways to leverage the popularity of celebrities.

To help you get your creativity flowing for your next hit game, I put together a list of six celebrity games I would like to play.

Continue to read the full post here

What the media industry can learn about native advertising from mobile games

[Originally posted on The Next Web June 7th 2014]

If you only know about native advertising as it’s described in most major media coverage (such as this recent Wall Street Journal report), you might assume the ad format is little more than ads that resemble Facebook updates, or sponsored articles attached to genuine editorial. Indeed, native ads were implicated in the recent strife at the venerable New York Times.

There’s a rich irony to this narrow definition: The New York Times itself, along with every other major media publication, is desperate to shore up its revenue base, especially as the market shifts to mobile – but still largely view native ads as a devil they may need to make a deal with, but only at a painful compromise to their editorial values.

It doesn’t have to be this way, because game developers (as they often do) have pioneered a workable direction. If media companies followed their lead, perhaps they’d earn more revenue without further blurring the lines of advertising and editorial. And in the process, help save our struggling media industry as a whole.

Continue to read the full post here

Interview: The Way Forward for Native Ads

Here is a little video interview I did while attending VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit 2014. The focus is on how my company NativeX got into creating native monetization tech for games, and what needs to happen to see native monetization scale.

How Google Play Can Help Indie Game Devs and Leapfrog Apple’s App Store in the Process

[Originally posted on Gamasutra April 24th 2014]

Google recently introduced an important new rule prohibiting deceptive promotion of apps on Google Play. It’s great that Google is clamping down on spammy advertising. However, the new regulation doesn’t really address a core, underlying cause for the practice: broken app discovery. With more than two thirds of apps failing to break even, it’s no surprise that some indie devs desperately turn to sketchy ad practices or bot farms that manipulate rankings. Of course, Apple’s App Store struggles with the same woes as well, but given that Google’s core competency is content discovery, it’s fair for the market to expect much more from Play.

Fortunately for Google, there’s a number of means to quickly gain the edge on discovery over Apple. In the process, the search giant can greatly help the independent developer community. (Which, after all, makes up the majority of app developers.)

Reform the Ranking System: At the moment, Google Play’s “Top Apps” lists are too directly tied to ad spend. Most indie developers don’t have a large enough advertising budget to compete on this playing field, and consequently, none but the very most successful indies last long enough on the top ranks to be noticed. To make things even harder for indies, most Google Play users only download apps from these Top Apps lists. One solution is to create indie-only lists (see below). Google should also tweak its general ranking algorithms to give more prominence to apps gaining traction without ad dollars.
Address the 5 Star Problem: Similar to the crippled ranking lists, many or most apps with consistent 5 star ratings got them not through organic acclaim, but by working the system. (One common, if very dubious technique: An app prompt asks users if they like the app, but are only taken to the app store to post a review if they answer “Yes”.) There are a number of ways Google could reform this system; here’s just two ideas: 1) Only allow app ratings after fifteen total minutes of gameplay, to curb unfair judging; and 2) Add a pop-up prompt automatically – directly from Google Play – so the users never have to leave the game. This is important to ensuring that the true app ranking score is captured. (The latter is important because most developers don’t typically send users who don’t like their game to the app store, so the majority of reviews are not a good representation of the broader gamer population.)

Continue to read the full post here

How To Build Effective Mobile In-app Ads Without Irking Your Users

[Originally posted on The Next Web February 28th 2014]

Thousands of apps launch each day, so the mobile app business must be booming, right? Not exactly.

Sure, thousands of apps are launched daily, but how many actually make money? Last I checked, products must generate revenue to qualify as a business. And generating money is where apps fail, miserably.

A recent Gartner report spells out the harsh forecast facing developers, which their industry still has yet to confront: Over the next few years, only an estimated .01 percent of consumer apps will be considered a financial success by their developers.

Currently, according to a global survey, 60 percent of developers make less than $500 a month off of their creation. So, what are the .01 percent doing right? And what can developers do to increase that success metric?

The answers to these questions range from simple to complex. But, regardless of the approach, there’s one simple word that developers can’t escape if they want to succeed: Advertising.

While there are no revenue guarantees, developers who specifically study in-app advertising and engagement strategies are on the right track to success.

Balancing in-app engagement with payments

Developers’ first mistake is focusing their business model only on in-app payments. Though in-app payments account for a majority of revenue currently being made by apps, even within game giants the percentage of overall users who make in-app purchases is less than 10 percent.

Instead of trying to squeeze more out of the small minority of users that make purchases, developers need to embrace advertising, refocus on the other ninety-plus-percent of their users and think about the characteristics that define any successful ad to keep those users engaged.

Developers can monetize the vast majority of their user base by integrating ads in a way that doesn’t disrupt the intended experience to earn maximum revenue with minimum annoyance to users.

Sure, in-app purchases – fueled by a small, but devoted user base – remain a vital revenue driver for most games in the market. However, to build a business that will not only survive but thrive in the long-term, developers must learn to strike a healthy balance between purchases (call to action) and entertainment (engagement).

Design your success natively

Developers and designers alike do their best work when thinking about the user experience. So, in order for in-app advertising to be effective, ads must follow some basic elements centered around Native Design.

In essence, Native Design seeks to make the ad look like it’s part of the app by being contextual and complementary to the content of the app, not above, below, or beside, but a real part of the user experience. Surprise breaks the pattern and attention of the user.

In order for ads to follow seamlessly and keep the attention of a user, they need to seem like they were conceived with the app at the origin using the following tactics:


Using characters and settings from within and app or game gives ads a better chance of engagement due to the relevance of the assets.

Because of their familiarity, associations should be used to create positive emotions and credibility, feeling more welcoming to players than ads without such connections.

Color and Contrast


Colors like red draw attention to users, but keep in mind the associated colors of the app to appeal to the overall Native Design aspect.

For example, colors of yellow and orange might bring out more feelings of optimism and friendliness compared to blues and greens, which are more associated with calmer feelings, but those colors need to correspond with what a user has already seen in the app.

Lines and Gaze

Eyes attract attention and gaze creates curiosity. Using those images along with the proper lines to lead a user’s view can cause immediate attention.

For example, having an associated character from the app or game looking toward a video or advertising offer can guide a user’s eyes toward keep words or actions such as downloads.

Movement and Action

Moving parts, either from associated characters around the ad or within the ad content, can cause an immediate reaction and engagement from a user, but learn the lessons of the Web – the movement can’t sour the original content.

The playable, often annoying flash-animated banner ads on websites were quickly scorned for being too distracting. Subtle movements can go a long way without being tiresome to players.


Does the ad have sound? Is there a video component that requires a voiceover or call to action? Often overlooked, ill-conceived sounds can be just as jarring for a user as poor visual design.

But these design elements don’t create the final checklist for an effective ad. There are three other aspects to keep in mind in order to build the best foundation for a campaign.

Time and place can trump all

Angry-Birds-on-Android-Hits-3M-Downloads-Free-with-Google-s-AdMob-2As important as design is, placement is just as crucial. Consider games, for example: You don’t want to show a player an offer wall advertisement (i.e. one that promotes other items) that blocks the main app content at the onset of the app.

Why? Think about it. They haven’t even had a chance to play the game yet. Similarly, placing ads at times during a coherent or long engagement period can cause users to turn away from the app all together.

Instead, think about inserting points between levels. And use your data. Identify where user “drop offs” are, and use incentive-based ads during those times.

The three biggest guidelines for high-engagement placement include:

User Emotional State

Players go through four separate emotional states during engagement with a game. Serving ads that are in-synch with those emotions continues the tactics of Native Design and not shocking or distracting from the user experience.

Players are typically in a positive emotion state after completing a level or increasing a character’s abilities; during these times non-incentive based, interstitial ads are best.

During negative or challenging emotional states players may encounter when losing a level or failing a character upgrade, serving incentive based video ads are best. And during neutral emotion states like exiting to main menus, serving non-incentive based videos is best.

Format Variety

Ideally, apps need five to six different formats within an app or game. Whether it’s a home screen that has a banner ad or a half time screen that turns into a video, campaigns need to mix in different formats and even different ads.

By doing this, campaigns are helping ensure that users are not seeing the same ad over and over, decreasing app enjoyment and building brand annoyance.


Not all users are equal when it comes to advertising. For example, developers should not bother top users (especially ones that make in-app purchases) with ads that will annoy them and potentially decrease their usage of an app or game.

Once developers start to collect analytic data about users, they may find power users don’t respond well to ads at all. And that’s okay, because developers may find that a small minority of their players (maybe 3 percent) like the offer wall ads or incentive campaigns — i.e., “watch this video to get a power-up,” and then developers can focus on the other 97 percent of their users with additional A/B testing to see what works with what group.

Go forth and build your app empire

Developing effective ads that users respond to positively is an ongoing process, but it’s a process developers must invest as much time in as development if they want to turn all their hard development work into money.

By following the above guidelines, remaining agile and responding to user data, developers will be better equipped to increase revenue several times over while not distracting from the core experience of the great app they’ve put so much time into creating.