Subscription Monetization: A Big Mobile Gaming Trend

Subscription Monetization: A Big Mobile Gaming Trend

by Mihovil Grguric

Have you paid a subscription fee lately? Or you are using someone else’s Netflix like me?

Either way, you’ve probably noticed that subscriptions are all around us.

And they might become the next big thing in mobile gaming.

Publishers have been predicting the rise of subscription monetization in mobile gaming for years.

It works so well for a lot of apps and other services. Why wouldn’t it be the case with mobile games?

Here’s everything you need to know about subscription monetization. What it is, what are the types, what are the good and the not-so-good things about it.

We also give you some examples of games that include subscriptions, and some practices that might work for your game.

Let’s start.

What Is Subscription Monetization?

Today, mobile games are based on two monetization pillars: in-app ads and in-app purchases.

Both of these models are based on the fact that the games remain free-to-play, but still let developers earn money off their mobile games. At the same time, players might find them slightly annoying, but don’t mind it as long as they don’t have to pay for games.

Since the whole game economy is based on the fact that the players don’t have to pay, how do subscriptions fit in?

In most cases, subscriptions are used as an additional monetization feature. They are not one of the pillars just yet.

How Do Subscriptions Work?

With the subscription model, players make regular payments to access additional in-game content and features during set subscription periods.

In mobile gaming, the subscription model mostly appears as a type of in-app purchases.  While the games remain free to play for casual players, the paying ones gain access to a premium gameplay experience.

Subscriptions revolve around 2 things: content and access.

Therefore, if the players pay for a premium experience – they should get one. In most cases, this means no ads, no constant IAP offers, no push notifications, etc. It also means unlocking levels, special tournaments, and whatever special content you can offer within your game.

In other words, if the users pay for a subscription, you can’t leave them with just the F2P mechanics!

subscription based monetization non gaming apps

Non-Gaming Apps vs. Mobile Games

It’s a fact – the subscription model works great for non-gaming apps. In fact, 96% of spend in top apps is driven by in-app subscriptions (App Annie).

The subscription model works best for content-driven apps such as streaming services, news feeds, fitness apps, or learning apps.

Why these? It’s all about user motivation. For example, people can feel extremely motivated to subscribe to an app that helps with weight loss or learning a foreign language.

As far as mobile games go, it is not the case just yet.

The subscription-only model is almost nowhere to be found in mobile games. This makes sense if you consider player motivation. Just think about it. We subscribe to Netflix because we know we are going to be using it on a daily basis.

However, committing to a game like that?

Not impossible, but unlikely. On the bright side, we’ve seen examples of successful subscription monetization in PC and console games such as Nintendo’s Mario Kart Tour, Sony Playstation Now, and others…

In mobile gaming, subscriptions work best in combination with basic monetization models.

Types of Mobile Game Subscriptions

There are several solutions for integrating a subscription model into your mobile game.

Subscription-Only Model

With this model, the users can play the game only if they purchase a subscription. However, after the users download the game, in most cases, they first get a free trial.

During this period, most or all of the game’s features are available without a fee. After that period ends, the player will have to pay a fee to continue playing.

Determining the subscription cycle is completely up to you. You can decide on one, or offer multiple subscription plans for different periods to choose from. It can be weekly, biweekly, yearly, etc.

What about pricing?

The rule for setting subscription prices should be – the longer the subscription, the better value for money.

You can even offer a lifetime subscription. With this type of subscription, your players make one purchase and they are done with the paying part. This way you get the earning upfront, while the players feel like they’ve gotten the game for the best available price.

However, in most cases, subscriptions are integrated into mobile games in the form of in-app purchases. And there are two different types: auto-renewable and non-renewing subscriptions.

Auto-Renewable Subscription

Auto-Renewable subscriptions are the most common type of subscriptions in mobile games. They are based not on accessing the game itself but on accessing extra value inside the game.

When users decide to purchase a subscription plan, the subscription lasts for a set period of time (week, month, year…). After that period ends, it automatically renews.

If users want to stop the on-going subscriptions, they have to cancel them manually before a new subscription cycle begins.

Meanwhile, non-paying players have to watch through ads and are denied access to certain game features.

For instance, if a user purchases an $8 monthly subscription on November 19, it will renew on December 19. This monthly subscription can bring a no-ad experience, a monthly amount of in-game currency, unlocked levels, and other special features. If the user doesn’t want to continue paying for it, it has to be canceled on December 18th or earlier.

cancel subscription

Non-Renewing Subscription

Non-renewing subscriptions work similarly to the first type, with one key difference.

After the subscription period ends, and the users want it to continue using it, they have to renew it themselves. For this reason, they are also called manual subscriptions.

Let’s say users subscribe to 30-day VIP access. After a month’s time passes, it’s completely up to them if they want to purchase another subscription or not.

This type of subscription is a good option if you’re thinking about giving subscriptions a shot and finding out if they make sense for your game.

It can also be used for testing price points and offers. For example, you can find out if bundle deals of gems and extra lives will be more popular as one-time IAPs or as a weekly subscription.

Non-renewing subscriptions are less common than auto-renewable ones. This comes as no surprise since they naturally come with a challenge: relying on a user to take action.

umbrella subscription

Single-Game vs. Umbrella Subscription

While the subscription-only model seems unlikely to become the next big thing in mobile gaming, there is one relatively new model that has the potential to do that.

Let’s call this model the umbrella subscription. This type of subscription is completely different from the previous ones. The umbrella subscription doesn’t focus on one particular game but works as a cross-game subscription.

And here’s how it works.

After users purchase a subscription, they gain access to multiple games on a single platform. In most cases, they are based on the all-you-can-eat model. What this means is that after the users pay a monthly subscription fee (e.g., $5) they can play any game on the platform.

For this system to work, an umbrella subscription for mobile games should include:

  • A big offer of games
  • Fresh content
  • Ad-free play
  • No in-app purchases

Additionally, the platform can offer cross-device compatibility, a family/friends package, and online/offline access.

Sounds like it could work?

Both Google and Apple recognized the potential of the umbrella subscription model.

google play pass subscription model

Thus they both recently introduced their own subscription-based gaming platforms. Both of them work based on the above-mentioned principles.

  • Apple Arcade was launched in 2019 and currently offers a selection of 130 games. The subscription costs $5 per month or $50 a year. Upon sign up, the players can enjoy a one-month free trial. They offer numerous single-player and multiplayer games from different genres and publishers.
  • Google Play Pass gives access to over 600 games and apps with no ads, IAPs, and paywalls. It also comes at a $5 cost and a one-month free trial. The Play Store users can easily find it and access it directly from the store.

If these platforms become popular among mobile gamers, they will inevitably affect and alter the mobile gaming landscape, especially paid games. Because why pay $5 for a single game if you can subscribe to 150 of them for the same price?

We will have to wait and see.

subscription-based monetization pros and cons

Subscription Monetization: Pros and Cons

This model comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some of them affect publishers, others the players.

In mobile gaming, subscription monetization can pay off in different ways, not just revenue-wise.

Increased Retention 

The players who decide to purchase a subscription plan are usually already highly engaged at the moment when the purchase happens.

When they buy a subscription, they are more likely to play the game even more frequently and have longer sessions. All of these circumstances drive the game’s ARPU and player LTV.

A Loyal User Base

Oftentimes, typical in-game features like a lot of ads and gameplay limitations negatively affect user loyalty. When users decide to subscribe and break these barriers, they become loyal users. To retain subscriber loyalty, you will need to constantly deliver new reasons (content, upgrades) for them to stay loyal.

Predictable Revenue

If you manage to get loyal and engaged users with your subscription monetization model, they can create a steady and ongoing revenue stream.

Future Game Updates 

You were able to create some form of a premium version of the game for your subscribers. Great, you can use some of the premium features if you decide to update the free version down the road.

Now let’s go over the benefits the players get from subscription monetization.

Premium Gameplay

For most users, premium gameplay means no irritating ads and constant nudges. In a lot of cases, these are the main reasons they decide to purchase a subscription in the first place.

No Feeling of Regret

Sometimes, gamers go overboard with in-app purchases and spend more than they intended. This can result in a feeling of regret. Subscriptions are less likely to have this effect.

No Need to Pick Between IAP Offers

Players who typically spend in-game don’t have to handpick offers, bundle deals, and think about value for money. They can be assured the subscription comes with the best price.

When it comes to the cons of subscription monetization, they mostly concern the publishers.

Constant Maintenance

For the subscription service to work, the game has to be constantly maintained and updated. In order to keep those subscribers, you’ll need to provide them with new and exciting features. While this is good news for the players, this obviously comes with costs and challenges for you as a developer.

Missing Out

If you decide to focus on a subscription-only model, you might be missing out on other potential revenue streams. That includes both ad revenue or seasonal spikes (e.g., jingle bell season) in player spending.

Can Subscription Monetization Work With Your Game?

Not every subscription model works for every game. Let’s go over some common subscription monetization features we noticed across different games and genres.

Battle Pass

Battle Pass is a popular monetization feature used across multiple genres. It is known to be especially effective in Strategy and RPG games. In most cases, Battle Pass works as a limited-time subscription.

Most commonly, it is based on a tier system where users play and complete challenges to get rewards and unlock new content. These are mostly cosmetic and don’t have strong effects on the gameplay itself.

There are none or very few immediate rewards you gain when you purchase a Battle Pass. Instead, players get access and the right to earn rewards over a period. For this to happen, the only way is to – play.

Not only does it keep the users playing but it keeps them interested as well, resulting in better engagement and retention rates.

Also, a great thing about Battle Passes is that they come with a clear subscription frame that includes time-limit, scope, and content.

If you have a strategy mobile game, here’s something to consider. 49% of players would like to have this option (Facebook Gaming Report). Currently, only 21% of strategy games deliver on this.

subscription-based monetization vip access

VIP Subscription

This feature is most commonly found in casino games. This comes as no surprise since the VIP concept first saw the light of the day in real-life casinos. Subscriptions later found their place in video games and mobile gaming.

It should be noted that this feature is also widely used across a number of games and genres, not exclusively in casino games. It is common in mid-core games but can be found everywhere, even in hyper-casual games.

This monetization feature is based on finding and engaging high-value players. It is a subscription model that comes with a lot of exclusive benefits.

In casino games, these benefits often include VIP tournaments and chip bonuses.

In other genres, a VIP subscription can include anything from the ad removal option to gifts, daily rewards…

Remove Ads

The option to remove ads is often a part of VIP offers but can come as a separate offer as well.

Whatever you call it, you can offer ad removal either as a subscription or as a one-time IAP. We’ve seen both in many successful games.

Examples of Mobile Games With Subscription Monetization

Let’s go over some examples of successful mobile games that included subscriptions into their monetization mix.

It’s important to note that none of these games monetizes exclusively with subscriptions, but use them as additional revenue streams.

pubg royale pass

PUBG Mobile – Royale Pass

This multiplayer RPG and action game by Tencent Games comes with its own version of a Battle Pass. It is called Royale Pass and it’s one of the most popular PUBG features.

Each time a new season begins, the players can purchase a new Royale Pass to take part in.

The players collect Royale Pass points from participating in daily and weekly missions, in-game events, collecting items, etc.

In PUBG Mobile, there are three kinds of battle passes: Free Pass, Elite Pass, and Elite Pass Plus.

The Free Pass is open to all players, allowing them to collect free rewards. Elite pass holders get better and bigger rewards, can unlock Elite missions, and upgrade faster. Meanwhile, the Elite Pass Plus offers all of that but with a better value for money.

subscription pub royale pass

In addition to this, Tencent Games introduced a new subscription feature in season 4.

There are 2 subscription offers available: RP Prime and RP Prime Plus. What these subscriptions bring is even more rewards at a lower price.

The RP prime costs $4.99, while RP Plus will cost players $12.49. Naturally, the Plus version comes with more benefits.

Both of these are monthly subscriptions, but they also offer the opportunity to subscribe for several consecutive months: three, six, nine, and twelve months. These consecutive subscriptions bring players additional rewards. Besides that, long-term subscribers get a 6.5% discount.

Basically, the longer the subscription, the better the benefits.

What makes this subscription so beneficial is the fact it pays off more than purchasing the regular Royale Pass.

For those hardcore players that purchase Royale Pass every season, it pays off even more to buy consecutive subscriptions.

Homescapes and Gardenscapes – Battle Pass

Battle pass subscriptions aren’t reserved for mid-core games only.

In fact, they are becoming a frequent, almost mandatory feature in the casual category, especially in the puzzle genre.

One of the first studios that brought battle passes to match-3 games was Playrix.

Therefore, we’re bringing you examples of battle pass implementation in their famous “scapes” games – Homescapes and Gardenscapes.

gardenscapes battle pass

Gardenscapes

In Gardenscapes, the battle pass always appears with a different theme. This depends on seasons, real-world events, etc. For example, “Yoga Season” was influenced by the pandemic and “stay at home” campaign.

The battle pass comes in two versions – free and paid. The price of the paid pass is $4.99 which is a standard price for battle passes in puzzle games.

A battle pass season lasts for 30 days. During this time, players collect season points and unlock different rewards, including special battle pass rewards.

golden ticket farm season

Homescapes

In this game, the themes of the battle pass also change. Therefore, up to now, Homescapes players could have played different seasons such as Farm Season, Corgi Season, Cottontail Season, etc.

Homescapes’ seasons are shorter than those in Gardenscapes. Here, they last for 16 days.

Their prices are equal, though.

Here, players can also play for free or purchase a Gold Ticket at $4.99. Purchasing it brings players more valuable rewards. It also brings players some rewards that can be earned exclusively with the paid battle pass.

As you can see, Playrix develops their battle passes on a similar principle. Obviously, they have found a formula that works for them and applied it to their games.

boom beach subscriptions

Boom Beach – Extra Builder/Instant Training

Boom Beach comes from one of the top mobile game publishers – Supercell. Falling into the strategy category, it monetizes mainly through in-app purchases.

Among other offers that mostly consist of different packs of in-game currency (diamonds), they’ve also added subscriptions to the mix.

They give out two subscription options:

  • Instant training ($9.99)
  • Extra builder ($9.99)

Instant training refers to training troops, while Extra builder gives players the ability to build two buildings at the same time.

Both of these subscriptions are monthly and renew automatically at the end of the subscription period.

Wheel of Fortune – VIP Access

This word puzzle game with some casino features is brought to us by Scopely. While the game is free to play, it contains ads, in-app purchases, and a subscription feature.

Their subscription is called VIP All Access Pass. It costs $9.99 a month, and the subscription period is one month.

Naturally, it comes with a one-week free trial. The trial automatically turns to a subscription if it’s not canceled within 24 hours prior to the end of the trial.

What benefits do you get? They call it the “jackpot of ongoing benefits” and it includes:

  • No ads
  • Bankruptcy protection
  • Lose a turn protection
  • Exclusive VIP frame
  • Five ticket cap increase

Therefore, the players get all of these rewards at a discounted rate. Typically, the same amount of money could buy them a one-time IAP – Bag of Diamonds. The subscription comes with significantly more value for money.

You won’t get the subscription offer when you just start playing the game, but after you’ve won a few rounds. It’s important to introduce it early enough to encourage new players’ engagement and potentially their future playing habits.

hunter assassin vip access

Hunter Assassin – VIP Access

Here’s an unexpected one. Hyper-casual games are definitely not the most obvious choice for subscription offers. While Hunter Assassin mainly monetizes through in-app ads like most other hyper-casual games, it also offers a weekly VIP subscription.

The subscription is called VIP access, and offers these benefits:

  • No ads
  • A purchase gift (5,000 gems)
  • Level bonus (+100% permanent level gem earning)

For potential new subscribers, it comes with a 3-day free trial. When this period ends, and the users decide to continue it, they will pay a subscription fee of $6.99 a week. It is an auto-renewable subscription. This means it will automatically renew each week unless the subscriber turns it off 24 hours before the period ends.

How successful is this model?

According to data on the game’s iOS users, the VIP subscription is the top-in app purchase in this game, surpassing the “remove ads” IAP offer in terms of popularity.

Battle Pass in Call of Duty: Mobile

Subscription in Call of Duty: Mobile comes in the form of a battle pass. Players are met with this offer early – as soon as they finish their first battle.

The battle pass in COD Mobile consists of tiers players need to progress through to earn rewards. The rewards include weapons, gun camos, weapon bluepritsm outfits, game characters, and COD points. Each battle pass season lasts for 6 months.

Furthermore, the battle pass comes in one free and two paid options – Premium Battle Pass which costs 560 COD Points (approx. $6) and Battle Pass Bundle at 1,280 COD Points (approx. $12). The former unlocks all premium rewards while the latter gives players access to additional rewards, mostly exclusive cosmetic items, which are sought after in COD. For example, in the current seasons, players who purchase the Battle Pass Bundle get exclusive James Bond-theme items.

Thus, the bundle is mostly about cosmetics, while the premium battle pass is more about helping players progress.

Because there are three different versions of the battle pass, it appeals to different groups of players – those who don’t want to spend any money, those who are fine with paying a small price, and those who want the full experience and are willing to pay for it.

6 Tips for Successful Subscription Monetization

Making subscriptions work for your game requires as much effort and analysis as for in-app ads and in-app purchases.

Think of creating subscriptions as a way of starting a relationship with your players.

Without further ado, here are the most important things to consider when introducing subscriptions into your mobile game.

unlock access

1. Make It About Access

Unlike in-app purchases that are based on owning things, subscriptions are based on access. This means removing all barriers that players face in the free-to-play game version.

The first step towards accessing subscription benefits is including a free trial. This might go without saying, but it’s extremely important.

After trying out all the perks of premium membership users are able to trust you. This is exactly what you want.

To boost conversions at the end of the trial, it is encouraged to provide instant value early in the player’s journey.

Ideally, the game should offer access to a lot of new content that will keep the game fresh for a long time. Depending on your game type, you can offer access to:

  • Tournaments/events
  • Items
  • Maps/zones
  • Levels
  • Characters

Moreover, granting access is probably the easiest way to integrate subscriptions into an existing mobile game. Especially if you already had this feature in the form of non-consumable IAPs. 

2. Customize Offers

First, you need to ask yourself, who is this subscription offer for? After all, new players and high-value players might find different things valuable. This is why you need to customize your value propositions.

New players are often focused on pricing. For example, you can offer them special, introductory prices such as two months of playing at a discounted price.

On the other hand, high-value players often want to be rewarded for their commitment. For this reason, other than discounts, they will likely appreciate special rewards, exclusive features, and similar prestige features in their subscription offer.

in game items

3. Choose the Right Benefits

What do you want to be the main reasons for players to subscribe? Ad removal, consumables, boosters?

The options are endless.

Make sure to offer benefits that the players will find valuable as long as they play the game, not just in the beginning.

Other than access, subscriptions can provide players with

  • Multipliers

Any kind of boosters such as additional XP or extra lives that positively affect player’s in-game efforts. For this reason, multipliers can be commonly found in battle passes. 

  • Quality of Life Benefits

Removing any kind of in-game interruptions such as in-game ads.

  • Vanity Features 

Let’s be real, we are all kind of vain. This is why we like our unique skins, gold name tags, and similar things. Especially if we can show them in front of other players. 

  • Consumables

If you ask publishers, they will say this is debatable. Even though consumables are not the primary way of driving subscriptions, they can increase player engagement and give them something to hold as their own. Most commonly, consumables come in the form of daily rewards (e.g., log in daily to get 100 gems).

On the contrary, some developers purposely design only non-consumable benefits that completely go away after the subscription. This is a double-edged sword because it can create an “on lease” experience, and potentially bring in negative emotions.

While some aspects should be built like that, you should give the users some permanent features as well.

4. Create Evolving Benefits

While IAPs are one-time static transactions, subscriptions should offer benefits that grow and evolve.

If the players spend days and months playing your game, you can’t keep giving them the same old things.

They are designed to engage users as they unlock benefits and advance. This kind of approach encourages players to play longer and more frequently.

As the players progress and stay subscribed, they should get added value with each subscription renewal. This can include anything from bonus items, currency, consumables, and other rewards.

You can also provide them with predictable offers for coming back to play (daily rewards, daily allowance). You can also include predictable goals and tasks such as daily missions, challenges, etc.

The longer the subscription, the better the gameplay experience for the players who get more benefits. The most common ways of creating an evolving in-game experience are:

  • A points system
  • A VIP point system
  • Tier rewards system
  • Milestone rewards

For example, when players get to level 50, they will receive a reward much more valuable than they got when they reached level 5.

When it comes to milestones, they can, for example, receive rewards after continuously playing for 6 months straight. After 12 months, the reward should be more generous. You can look at it as celebrating a relationship anniversary.

5. Provide Meta-Game Depth

The players that have been engaged for a while have to be strategically retained. This will depend on the sheer nature of your game.

The game’s core loop has to be engaging enough for players to believe it will be worth their time and money.

Depending on your game types you can include any features that affect leveling, skill development, and increasing competitive advantage. That can be progression assistance, collections, investment features (e.g., piggy banks, gold chests, war bonds), and similar features.

All of these can make the user feel invested at a deeper level and make them seek additional value in the form of a subscription.

subscription based monetization mix

6. Nurture the Monetization Relationship 

When introducing subscriptions, there is a common concern that they will cannibalize IAP and ad revenue.

At the same time, it can be exactly the opposite. These revenue streams can complement each other.

At the beginning of the user’s journey, you can use ads to cross-promote subscriptions. After the users purchase the subscription, remove interruptive ads like interstitials and banners (or all of them).

However, note that, with subscriptions, you don’t have to give up rewarded video ads. Since they are opt-in by nature, they don’t interrupt the gameplay experience. What you can do to enhance this relationship is to provide even bigger rewards for subscribers.

IAPs can be included as subscription benefits but at a better price.

Furthermore, you can create a VIP-only store. In this store, you can offer exclusive items that would otherwise not be available. After completing purchases, subscribers can be rewarded with additional points or special discounts.

These suggestions are not applicable to all genres. For example, if you have a hyper-casual game, the best thing you can offer with a subscription is to simply remove ads.

Remember, if you get too greedy, the players will recognize it.

Subscription Monetization Wrap Up

Thinking about including subscription features into your mobile game? Get ready for a process that includes many analyses and adjustments.

Once you figure it out, subscriptions can become a valuable revenue stream for your game.

One thing is for sure – subscription monetization has potential in mobile gaming.

For the best results, we recommend combining subscription monetization together with other models.

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About Udonis

Udonis is an independent full-service mobile marketing agency that acquired more than 200,000,000 users for mobile games since 2018. Visitudonis.co

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