The State of Social Casino
When breaking up the mobile gaming market according to Game Refinery’s taxonomy, the “Casino” (aka Social Casino) category is the third largest by revenue – and it has steadily been growing over 2018. Category revenue grew by +24% YoY, and the “Slots” sub-genre contributed to ~70% of this growth. “Slots” generate anything between an average of 70-80% of real world casino revenues, and the same engagement behaviour is mirrored in the Social Casino space.
“Slots” are the largest revenue generating sub-genre of the Casino category, occupying a 78% share. Read more about our thoughts around this category and its future in our 2019 Casino category prediction post.
* Ad revenues not included
At the same time, the Social Casino space (and Slots games specifically) has not seen too much of product innovation over the past few years. Product offerings are quite constant amongst the top performers – enter the lobby → choose from a multitude of slot machines → bet → win → repeat. Product differentiation is driven by UX, art styles, production quality and minor meta systems such as quests and saga maps.
Further, slots game economies are still stuck largely in the digital dark ages of the single currency economy. Many games feature secondary and even tertiary currencies, but slots players still largely only care about coins. Given this product design stagnancy, one could say that the sub-genre is primed for innovation.
The dormant downloads growth trend of Slots games over the past 2 years further fuels the idea of innovation unlocking more growth in the sub-genre.
Almost all Social Casino titles have fought for market share by staying safe and delivering authentic casino experiences on mobile.
Coin Master – A Massive Disruptor?
It could be argued whether “Coin Master” (CM) falls into the Casino category or not, but either way it is turning out to be the spark that will drive future innovation in the Casino category.
With progressively deep content wrapped into a single slot machine, casual art style, a more substantial meta, strong social features, hyperactive live operations and great UX/production value, Israeli developer Moon Active has pretty much flipped the traditional Slots games design model on its head. The resulting numbers don’t lie, as this bold move by CM is proving to be very successful.
Coin Master’s store screenshots | Source: Apple App Store
Coin Master has made over January revenues have skyrocketed +250% YoY!
CM hovers in the top 50 grossing games.
While it is true that CM does not position itself as a Slots game, it has a slots core that is obviously hard to miss.
With classic blue ocean finding finesse, CM is not only burning global grossing charts, but is also unlocking growth in non-traditional social casino markets like India and Israel – a nut that traditional social casino games have not been able to crack in the past. Clearly, CM has and will continue to expand the definition of “social casino”, while also growing the pie!
CM has unlocked downloads growth in countries like India and Israel – both non-traditional slots markets.
So, what is it about CM that makes it resonate so well? We will answer this question in two parts – first by looking at what CM is all about, and second by comparing to the competition to see how CM does it better.
Coin Master’s Game Systems
CM successfully takes the traditional slot machine experience (the heart of all gambling games), marries it with very light mid-core mechanics of base building, attacking and stealing from other players, and supports all this with a strong social loop over brilliant live-ops, a well balanced economy, great gameplay UX and a casual art style – all resulting in delivering a highly unique slots experience with significant market traction.
Bizarre as all this may sound, this recipe works and the game can be very engaging and fun to play, even if you are not a social casino fan!
The Core Loop
Quickly running through what the core loop of CM entails –
- One would spin reels on a giant slot machine with spins generating different reel symbol combinations and betting more spins multiplying the reward, similar to traditional slots games
- Each spin outcome can result in either gaining “Coins”, “Raiding”/“Attacking” to steal coins from other players’ bases or winning “Shields” to protect one’s own loot
- By sinking all coins won in base upgrades, one progresses up the saga map and thereby unlocks more features and higher jackpots
The core loop of CM is notably more complex than standard slot games, which are mainly about simply spinning a reel with different bet amounts and receiving variable rewards. At the same time, CM has been able to translate this elaborated core loop into simple, digestible and engaging core gameplay.
All of which results in a near slots experience that makes the most of addictive slots player psychology, while using casual versions of proven F2P mid-core mechanics to capitalise on feelings of Loss Aversion and Skinner Box driven habit forming.
Most definitely, “Spins” drive all core loop engagement. With 5 free spins being granted every 50 minutes, their availability is limited and hence they are an energy mechanic of sorts. As with all energy mechanics, game session length is tempered to protect players from burnout, while also driving monetisation and retention.
But CM is also quite generous with giving out spin rewards through reel matches and events for example, and thereby strays away from the typical gameplay throttling impression energy mechanics usually have in other games.
Attacks and Raids – PvP Gameplay
One of the two possible PvP oriented spin results is “Attacking”. On hitting 3 attack reel symbols (hammers), one enters Attack mode and there is an immediate transition to a defending player’s base. Similar to viewing a base and choosing where to attack in mid-core Build & Battle games, one can choose which opponent structure to attack.
A successful attack would yield a variable coin amount. It should be mentioned that unlike mid-core Build & Battle games, the attack experience in CM is a simple and quick one action affair. And given CM’s more casual target audience, keeping this experience light is definitely a prudent design choice.
“Attack” reel match and gameplay screen.
Related to the Attack system – “Shields” are consumables granted randomly through slot machine spins and automatically applied to a players base, so as to block incoming player attacks, protect loot and result in a lower payout for the attacker.
“Shield” reel match and attack blocked by shield screen.
Most definitely, Shields are also lost as a result of incoming attacks. Since a player can only hold 3 Shields at a time, this system also doubles up as a minor retention mechanic to get players back into the game and refill shields through more slot spins. Further, the existence of the Shields system allows CM to be more generous with chances for Attack slot reel results, thereby driving two-way (attacker and defender) engagement through social.
The second PvP oriented spin result is “Raiding”. Similar to Attacking, a player would need to hit 3 raid reel symbols (pigs) to activate the Raid mode. In this mode, a player can bypass protection Shields and steal coins from other players bases.
“Raid” reel match and gameplay screen.
Since the defender has no way to protect his coins during a raid, the odds are balanced for the attacker by limiting the total loot that can be stolen and also fragmenting the total loot across the defender’s base. The attacker has three chances to guess where the coins lie and maximise the loot stolen, with some steal attempts also resulting in no loot gained. Similar to Attacks, Raids also drive two-way engagement through social.
There are two additional systems related to the Raid system. The first is the special “Coin Master” raid. At the top of the slot machine, a Coin Master target is always displayed to the player and on some raid reel matches, it becomes possible to raid this featured target.
Since this is usually a player with a lot of hoarded loot, it is equivalent to hitting a jackpot in traditional slot games – a major win motivator. But more interestingly, the existence of the Coin Master position inversely motivates players to sink their won coins quickly into building upgrades, so that they are not made more susceptible for raiding by being featured as Coin Master.
The second system auxiliary to Raids is the Pets collection mechanic, which lightly drives medium-long term monetisation and retention. Collected pets assist in stealing more loot during raids. Pets are acquired through completing card collections, and cards are acquired through chests that can either be randomly found during a raid or purchased directly from the store.
Base Building and Saga Progression
The base and saga map make up the progression backbone of the entire game. On a certain village base, one uses coin winnings to build and upgrade various buildings. Once all the buildings of the village base have been upgraded to their maximum levels, the player moves up the saga map to a different village level, inherits a new base, and continues to build and upgrade new buildings.
Most definitely, higher village levels unlock newer features and allow higher coin payouts from various slot reel matches. Each village base also has different themes for both the slot machine and base buildings, which become more exquisite and animated as one moves up saga map.
One could argue that the changing of themes along the saga map is Moon Active’s slick solution to retain the same feeling that one gets from playing across different slot machines in the lobbies of traditional slots games – without all the lobby-style cognitive load and DLC woes. At the same time, since nothing but the theme and potential payout amounts change, it cannot be considered as an absolutely new slot machine and therefore maybe a lost opportunity to slightly vary gameplay and keep things even more fresh as a player progresses deeper.
Base building follows the same rules as mid-core games, but continues to be a light implementation to fit the playing audience nature. It feels more effortless cognitive load wise due to limiting the number of buildings to just 5 in each village and via prominent “Fix” prompts appearing on each building after its attacked by other players.
Following the “Fix” prompt UX design, we could also see a world where the “Village Shop” could’ve been incorporated onto the base view screen itself, so as to further reduce cognitive load, clicks and screens, as the repeated actions taken to upgrade base buildings does become tiring over time for an experienced player.
Strong Social Hooks to Drive Meta Engagement
Adding light combat and base building might have felt superficial and ineffective, had it not been for the strong social and revenge loops created with friends and other players that CM keeps rubbing in.
The feeling of being attacked and having hard earned coins stolen, urges one to come back to the game ever more often and do the same to other players, and more interestingly to friends playing the game. Most definitely, these loops also help drive organic user growth and retention. Some key features that drive the social and revenge loops are shown in the diagram below.
Apart from these, there is one bonus feature that almost feels like an easter egg – it is possible for a player to be attacked/raided while playing the game, making the screen shake to let them know!
All in all, the array of above mentioned features are not really “cutting edge social”, but they are simply well-implemented within the core and meta gameplay. Not only do they do a great job of allowing players to invite their friends to a unique slots experience, but also fuel the building of a solid sense of relatedness, competition and cooperation inside and outside of the game. By making for a wholesome social experience, CM is able to drive both short term session-to-session engagement, medium-to-long term retention and organic user growth simultaneously.
Read more about the power of viral mechanics to fuel organic user growth in our HQ Trivia deconstruct.
How does CM do it better than the competition?
CM is not the only game experimenting with mechanic mish-mash to create product differentiation in the Social Casino space. “Pirate Kings” (PK) from Jelly Button Games (now acquired by Playtika), has exactly the same core and meta game play that is seen in CM.
In fact, the two games are MIRROR IMAGES of each other, except for PK using a Wheel of Fortune design versus a Slots design in CM. But why then is CM performing so much better than PK?
While the core loops of CM and PK are identical, there are two core mechanic differentiators that drive more affinity and engagement on CM.
Firstly, CM chose Slots as the core play mechanic vs a Wheel of Fortune in PK. From a market affinity standpoint, Slots are by far the most popular casino category – both in the real and virtual world. Slots based games make up >70% of all the social casino titles in the top 100 grossing ranks, as can be seen in the adjacent pie chart. Following this and as mentioned before, Slots based games also drive >70% of social casino revenues. Clearly CM beats PK on this scale due to its core slots mechanic.
As of February 20th, 2019.
Secondly, CM introduces the “Auto-Spin” and multi-spin betting mechanics much earlier in the player journey compared to PK. Why this is important is mainly psychological. According to Natasha Dow Schüll, author of “Addiction by Design”, luck based games with low entry barriers like slots or wheel of fortune keep a large number of players locked in for the longest time periods in real world casinos due to three major factors – Solitude (a highly personal experience with the slot machine), Continuity (seamless round-to-round progression) and Speed (quick round-to-round gratification).
Solitude is not relevant given both CM and PK are played on personal mobile devices. But CM does automate and accelerate play way earlier than PK, and this ends up driving Continuity and Speed way more than PK.
There are other psychological factors too where Slots wins over Wheel of Fortune, like humans being more conducive to pattern recognition and better near-win experiences. But we’ll consider those to be out of the scope of this article.
Following from the above point of CM driving Continuity and Speed, this wouldn’t have any significant metric impact unless players receive meaningful material output from all that automated spinning. And this is purely a function of the pay tables in either game.
For CM’s or PK’s attack/raid/shield mechanics to materially impact player experience, the games have to grant these slot rolls more often. But within the first few days of play, it becomes quite clear that CM grants these slot rolls more often than PK. Not only does this make for a more enjoyable experience due to more win moments, but it also drives quicker game progression and more engaging social loops compared to PK.
Most definitely, all these supercharged systems of CM need to be weighed against a tightly balanced economy. An economy that maintains a healthy tension between motivating continued progression and delivering respectable LTV. Without getting into too many of the economy details, we’d say that CM has a done a great job in maintaining that tension. That doesn’t mean PK is a poorly balanced economy by any means, but game progression is just slower in general.
Live Ops Events in CM are very well managed and offer a lot of gameplay variety for players, which helps break the monotony of the core game play experience for heavily engaged players. Multi-day events can range from having a dedicated high roller slot machine, where players can bet with coins, to heavily real-world-themed events (“Super Bowl” or “Valentines Day”), where players need to complete a flurry of short term milestones and win huge lucrative rewards.
With one to two events always running simultaneously, this milestone based event system with a lucrative set of rewards and unique themes encourage continued week-to-week engagement of players. Further, event themed bundles are on put on sale too to create those ever loved weekly revenue spikes. Unfortunately, PK falls short here too with a comparatively infrequent LiveOps cadence.
It should be called out that CM is extremely generous with the difficulty level of their events, which makes the first few milestones a breeze to complete. And this is not a one time occurrence, as the feeling of the game purposely allowing you to complete the first few milestones within a single session is regularly delivered event to event.
It could be argued whether CM breaks one of the cardinal rules of slots games – giving the player the feeling of the system being rigged. At the same time, CM does not market itself as a traditional slots game, where pay tables are closer to random. Therefore, it is clear that CM does take some liberties to drive engagement.
Product UX and Aesthetics
A key player-first area where both CM and PK have innovated is UX, and we’d like to call out three specific points, while comparing how both compare against each other on them.
First, the Spin button – the one button to rule them all. Acting as a single entry point to entire gameplay, it is great at deliberately automating player actions.
Unlike in mid-core games where players consciously choose through a dedicated UI when they want to build or battle, CM takes that choice out of the hand of its casual audience with spin outcomes automatically deciding players’ next action. Similar to CM, PK too makes it effortless for players to transition from one loop of the game to the other. Though CM feels like a less clunky experience compared to that of PK.
Second, the minimisation of drill downs. Seamless transitioning between key gameplay screens through simple swipe gestures minimises menu drill downs, thereby elevating UX in an area that many mobile games struggle with. Most games have loading screens or spinners to solve for this, but this ends up breaking the flow of experience. While Clash Royale was one to start this trend, both CM and PK execute well here. Though lightning fast and smoother screen transitions in CM results in pegging its UX at a level higher than that of PK’s.
Third, in terms of general aesthetics and art styles, CM feels way more peppy and contemporary compared to PK’s slightly more old school style. And today’s mobile gamer definitely prefers the former.
On the marketing side of things, CM has utilised influencer marketing to convert a great product into more of an every day phenomenon. By tying up with some of the top influencers in countries like Singapore and United Kingdom, CM’s free chart rankings saw instant spikes on releasing the influencer videos/advertisements.
In Australia, a more creative strategy was used where a couple from a famous reality TV show, named “Married at First Sight”, humorously justified their break up because of too many CM attacks between the both of them!
Based on our research, it doesn’t seem like PK is utilising such a strategy yet. At the same time, PK has Playtika’s massive UA war chest backing it – a luxury CM does not necessarily have. While it is not clear how much of CM’s growth is UA driven, it will definitely be interesting to see how Jelly Button Games uses the synergies with Playtika to its advantage and get the jump on Moon Active.
Read more about our thoughts around mistakes to avoid in Influencer Marketing here.
A New Face for Social Casino
While CM and PK are fighting top spot, both are definitely paving a new path for Social Casino in 2019. And there are three major reasons why we believe this –
- Given user growth slowdown in Social Casino, both CM and PK have clearly showcased a new way to open up social casino gameplay to new audiences/markets and thereby grow the pie.
- Given revenue growth slowdown in Social Casino, both games have brought massive innovation to the space with their unique product designs to drive LTVs in very new ways.
- Without a doubt, CM and PK alike are a massive disruption – but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Top social casino game developers have a lot to gain by taking a page from Moon Active and Jelly Button Games, combining it with years of social casino games production knowledge and bringing a host of new and fresh social casino game experiences to the market that will eventually grow their portfolios even further.