How Coin Master got Indians hooked to slot machines

Akash Senapaty February 21, 2019 10 min

. (Edit Note: A longer version of this article was first published on Akash Senapaty’s blog.)


Statement: India is addicted to slot machines.

Counter statement: Really? We don’t have a Vegas. And the offshore casinos in Goa don’t really make up the numbers.

Then, how did this happen? Time to take a look at the rise of Coin Master, a game developed by the Tel Aviv-based game studio MoonActive.

What is Coin Master?

Coin Master has been downloaded over 10 million times on Google Play alone. It’s currently #3 on the top grossing charts in India. The game drives more IAP (in-app purchase) revenues than any other app except PUBG and Tinder! While India is the biggest market (by users) for the game, it is minting money worldwide. Coin Master is making $11 million per month globally, according to SensorTower (here and here).

In the game, you get to build and upgrade buildings. You also get to raid other players’ bases while defending your own. ‘Build and Battle’ would be a concise summary for Coin Master. I could be describing Clash of Clans, but for one significant difference: every action in the game is driven by Slot Machine rewards.

In this article we’re going to discuss:

  • What is the larger significance, i.e. why pick this app to analyse
  • How does Coin Master work: its UI elements, core loop and art style
  • Economy and monetisation
  • How human psychology is leveraged to create stickiness and addiction
  • Loss aversion
  • Variable rewards
  • Reciprocity, both positive and negative
  • Savvy marketing
  • Closing notes

What makes Coin Master significant

Coin Master combines two very different genres: Building & Gambling. The game developers must have asked themselves, “How do we re-imagine mobile slots?”

(Top) Slotomania from Playtika, the market leader in video slots on mobile, versus Coin Master
(Top) Slotomania from Playtika, the market leader in video slots on mobile, versus Coin Master

And this is what gives Coin Master its significance. In a world where traditional video slots mobile games are not growing, Coin Master and others like Pirate Kings are shaking things up.

In a country like India, where slots aren’t a part of the culture, Coin Master has done the impossible by reaching the #3 top grossing position — and, yes, beating out anything with the words “Teen Patti” in it.

This is big.

Even in countries accustomed to slot machines, Coin Master has been steadily climbing up the ranks. In the US, it is a top 30 grossing app with only Slotomania ahead of it in the casino genre. And in the UK, it is #1 top grossing app. More on how that happened later in the article.

Here is how it works

You install the game based on its feel-good advertisements showing social play with friends.

The accessible, casual art style then draws you in.

You start up the game for the first time, see your village and build your first building. This gives you a star and, importantly, a sense of progress.

Soon enough, you’re out of coins but you want to build more. No worries. Swipe down and you see a slot machine. This machine will be your companion throughout the game. Using it lets you earn coins which allow you to expand your village.

It feels like a real slot machine. Repetitive feel-good music. Playful visual effects. Coins flying out at you as you win. And even a change in music to elevate the tension, when you stand to win big.

Understanding the UI

There are two main screens. First, the slot machine. This is used to earn gold (soft currency) and raid other villages for even more gold.

Second is your village. This is where you go to sink the soft currency by building and upgrading buildings. Once you build all available buildings in this village, the game takes you to next one and the process starts again.

The Core Loop

The core loop depicts the economy of the game, showing how resources are generated and where they are spent. The soft currency in this game is Coins which you earn by spinning the wheel. You get five Spins every hour and can usually hold a maximum of 50.

Every spin on the slot machine gives you a chance to:
– Earn Coins: the soft currency used to build up your village
– Raid: a chance to get disproportionate coin rewards from a randomly selected village
– Get a Shield: an item that protects you from raids
– Attack: ability to attack a stranger or someone from your friends list
– Extra Spins: to add on spins

The Art Style

The main characters in Coin Master are a Viking and his pet pig. While those two sound like an unlikely pair, it is worth noting that the visuals are done in a very accessible, cartoon-like style. A clear departure from apps like Slotomania in which the visuals are designed to mimic real-world slot machines.

The visuals on Coin Master are done in an accessible, cartoon-like style. This makes the top of the funnel wider as the app attracts the casual gaming audience

Economy, Tuning and Monetisation

While the visuals may look very casual, the economy is not. The free spins are designed to run out in the first session itself – within a couple of minutes. The game uses this opportunity to get the player to invite friends via Facebook or via a Native Share.

The user is incentivised – almost forced – to connect to Facebook
The user is incentivised – almost forced – to connect to Facebook

The first visual is to anchor the player to the price of goods in the game (~$4.99 for extra spins). On tapping close, it becomes evident just how important Facebook is to games that target a casual audience, as the user gets popup after popup incentivising it.

Coins are sunk into building construction and upgrades. As expected, there is an inflation in the cost per upgrade, both within a level and as the player levels up.

Monetisation

Sales are a big part of the monetisation strategy. There are regular sales with deep discounts. Here are a few things that stand out:

– There are frequent sales, often coupled with (or closely followed by) events to drive spend, engagement and sink currency
– The sale offer can be purchased multiple times over. This indicates that their store pricing is mainly for anchoring
– There is no mention of sales on their very active Facebook and Instagram channels. This indicates that sales are targeted on user profiles

Leveraging Human Psychology

Games and apps around us exploit certain kinks in the human brain. Coin Master does this masterfully. Here is what we can learn:

1. Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is our tendency to avoid losses, over acquiring an equal gain. In short, losing $5 will feel worse than finding $5. In Coin Master there are multiple design choices that take advantage of this.

Hard earned coins in the game can be stolen by random strangers

Imagine you’re saving up for a building upgrade that costs 10 million coins. That’s a big number and it is not going to happen over one session of gameplay. So you decide to collect some now, some in the evening, and then some tomorrow morning. You go to sleep thinking tomorrow will be the day.

But you wake up to find that “Brittany” has stolen your coins! A rude shock, but with only one solution. Find a way to save up the coins in one session. This usually means spending on extra moves or buying the coins outright.

Imagine you're trying to save up for the next big thing — and then this happens 😠
Imagine you’re trying to save up for the next big thing — and then this happens 😠

If this didn’t feel punitive enough then get this: Your coins can be stolen from you even when you’re online! Even Clash doesn’t do that.

And if that didn’t feel bad enough, the game also has a mechanic where your building can be destroyed while you’re away and you’ll have to pay for repairs when you return .

Finite number of spins

Spins replenish by +5 every hour and you can store a maximum of 50 spins. Which means, every minute spent at full spins capacity is wasted. How? You could have been accumulating more spins, of course!

The game incentivises you to play as soon as you wake up and exhaust your spins before you go to sleep!

Others

There are more neat tricks the game uses. You can read them in the footnotes here.

2. Why doesn’t everyone just quit? Variable Rewards

Coin Master, like any slots game, deploys a strategy of variable rewards to get users hooked. Any spin could be your lucky one! The research says that giving users exactly what they want, will get them less engaged over time . So the app gives users a mix of rewards ranging from meh to OhMyGod! Here is an example:

You really need 800k coins to make your next upgrade. Keith (below) has 756k coins up for grabs… Excellent, this could be your chance! But you really really need for the machine to stop on the “RAID” option – when three pigs line up. You spin and pray at the same time. SUCCESS! Let’s Raid. You raid and you’ve got three tries to get Keith’s treasure, but four possible locations to search. Of which, one will be empty. Oh no — more variable rewards systems!

A roller coaster of emotions experienced multiple times a session
A roller coaster of emotions experienced multiple times a session

If you’re an Indian reader, then you’ve been subjected to variable rewards in certain popular apps .

3. Reciprocity

The game uses social in every way possible. As we saw earlier, the game goes out of its way to get the player to connect to Facebook. Once done, expect a world of gifting and receiving.

Reciprocity is the social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action. This is heavily leveraged in the app. A player can trade free Spins, Coins and Cards all day, up to a limit of 100.

Negative Reciprocity

Got attacked? … Coins stolen? … Then let’s revenge. 🗡️

Revenge is a very important part of Coin Master. It is extensively used in the push notifications to draw users back into the game. It is even used while the player is in the game to get them into an attacking frame of mind. It is the entire basis for their ad campaign (as you’ll see below)

Savvy Influencer Marketing

Coin Master has been busy recruiting influencers since 2017 (and maybe even before). Here is a video of Jianhao Tan, who is a top influencer in Singapore with 2.7m subs on YouTube.

And then there are the tie-ups with the very popular 17-year-old British Youtuber Morgz. He has 8.5m subs and these very cringey ads.

But, there is no denying that the results were like rocket fuel for the app as it shot up to #1 in both the overall downloads and top grossing charts in the UK.

Coin Master influencer partnerships (Data: Apptopia)
Coin Master influencer partnerships (Data: Apptopia)

And I’m not sure how this happened – but Coin Master has even captured the imagination of Indian YouTube. There are literally hundreds of videos talking about the app in Hindi. It’s possible that the developers partnered with a couple of YouTubers and it just spread from there.

TIL on Indian YouTube – Access Coin Master via a Singapore VPN and apparently your max spins increase to 100! 😮

To Conclude

Coin Master is a very well executed re-imagining of what mobile slots can look like. Like other top games, it mashes together various proven game mechanics to create a winning combination.

It is ahead of the competition (Pirate Kings) and I believe that is due to a superior live-ops strategy and a well managed, tight economy. The game has a mature events framework that feels natural to the game. It drives engagement, IAP spend and currency sink – all in unison. It is well supported by a well managed social media presence and a savvy marketing team that has roped in a bunch of influencers. It is currently firing on all cylinders.


About the author: Akash Senapaty is a Product Lead at m56Studios (currently hiring engineers). He was formerly with Zynga in their London studio. His interests lie in mobile games and consumer apps space. Follow him on Twitter at @ASenapaty. A longer version of this article was first published on his blog.


               

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