Category: Mobile App Design

Hearthstone®  from Blizzard is a free to play card game with an estimated 50 million players and making over $20 million monthly (that’s more than Dota 2).  You can download it now via Opera Mobile Store – on Android or iOS.

Here, we will take a look at some of its dynamics that may be of interest to app developers whether from a design, play or marketing perspective.  It’s a rare game that keeps me coming back daily over three months and rarer yet to persuade me to spend real money on a free to play format.  Further, yesterday marked the beginning of Hearthstone’s new Standard Format along with a new “Whispers of the Old Gods™” (Cthulu-themed) expansion pack.

Free to Play or Pay to Win?

It becomes obvious quite quickly in some “free to play” games that one must “pay to play” outside the starting gate.  That, for me, is an immediate call to delete the game.  With Hearthstone, the call to pay is more subtle and refined but repeatedly (and literally) smacking you in the face, but let’s back up.

Gold is the in-game currency which can be spent on Card Packs (100 gold), Adventure Wings (14 in total, usually 700 gold each), or a round in The Arena (150 gold).  Each adventure wing unlocks several new cards while rewards in The Arena scale to player performance (play until you lose 3 or win 12 matches).  So, that’s what you can spend gold or real money on (aside from a few vanity items), but we’ll come back to the real money in a moment.

Gold can be earned by winning 3 matches (10 gold), completing daily quests (roughly 60 gold each on average), through a few milestones (like playing on your Android device or iPhone), and from winning in The Arena.  Additionally, a free card pack can be earned from each week’s Tavern Brawl.  Committing to this “minimum” will yield the equivalent of 2500 gold (2100 gold + 4 decks) per month.

Of course, you have the option to pay real money for any of these items; and there are discounts for bulk purchases – 2 decks for $2.99 ($1.495 each) to 60 decks for $69.99 ($1.167 each).  We can consider the base value of 100 gold as equal to $1.50.  So, the 2500 gold from above has a theoretical in-game value of $37.50 – or roughly $450 over the course of a year.  That’s a fair chunk of change!  Essentially Free, but with a cost in Time.

Many MMORPG’s today offer player’s the opportunity to fast track their entrance into a game – to start at level 80 or 90 instead of level 1, for example.  Time and money are both currencies, of which everyone has more of one than the other.  While being able to purchase “content” does accelerate entry and can help to win, it does not by itself equate to “pay to win”.  In Hearthstone’s ranked play, there is no shortage of players between the ranks of 20 and 15 with undoubtedly awesome card collections.

Card Value

Not all cards have the same value, from several different perspectives.  Every Hearthstone card pack is guaranteed to have 5 cards, mostly Common but at least one is guaranteed to be Rare.  They may occasionally include an Epic or Legendary.   While you can get most cards from opening packs, you also have the option to craft ones you deem essential, at a cost:

  • 1 Legendary = 1600 dust
  • 1 Epic = 400 dust
  • 1 Rare = 100 dust
  • 1 Common = 40 dust

Thus, for the cost to craft 1 Legendary card you could craft 40 Common cards, 16 Rares or 4 Epics.  The process of collecting cards proceeds in basically that same fashion – far more likely to get all of the Common cards before getting all of the Rares, repeating similarly relative to Epics and Legends.

Consequently, this is the big draw for the Adventure Packs, guaranteeing 1 Legendary per adventure wing, plus a “final boss” after completing all of the wings.  

There is no in-game card trading in Hearthstone, as obviously that would cut into sales of card packs.  Leastwise, designers need to spend a fair amount of time fleshing out their game’s economic model – as relates to in-game currency, cash and potential marketing components.

Whispers of the Old Gods™

The inherent problem of Hearthstone’s format, or any competitive format, is that the longer people play it the more difficult it is for new players to effectively compete – making it more difficult for the game to grow.  Honestly, after seeing Dr. Doom and his Boom-Bot companions appear 8 matches in a row, I started questioning my long-term interest in the game.  It’s not that Dr. Doom equated to an automatic loss (more 50-50), so much as realizing how much of a head start that perhaps 20-30 million other people had.  About that time, news came of Hearthstone introducing a new play format which would weed out some of the older cards from most competitive play.  This has the inherent impact of evening out the playing field, some – not completely.

On Day 1 of the Whispers of the Old Gods release and introduction of the new Standard Format, everyone was greeted with 3 free cards (one being a Legendary, C’Thun).  On top of this, everyone received 3 free card packs with cards from the expansion.  Players were also given a new extra Daily Quest – Win 2 Games in Standard and win 5 free card packs.  This was followed by Win 7 Games in Standard and win 5 more card packs.  No coincidence that these add up to 13 free card packs – and roughly $20.00 in base value.

A promotion leading up to the expansion offered the pre-purchase of 50 decks for $49.99 (or $1 per pack) along with a vanity C’Thun (Cthulu) themed card back (a vanity item).

By taking the time to play to earn more card packs you acquire a good deal of experience to help you get the most out of the cards you already have.  By purchasing the content, in many perhaps most cases, players may have a greater selection of cards, but not necessarily the experience to get the most out of them.  It’s a roughly equal trade.

Generally though, my willingness to spend money has been significantly influenced by how much the game gives to me – which after all, if players don’t play – the developers make no money.  That’s not necessarily saying to give everything away for free – not at all.  It is simply advocating, with freebies like the Daily Quest and Weekly Tavern Brawl, to keep us coming back – and to strategically channel our rewards into the things we need most to advance our game further, faster and better.

The majority of my investment into Hearthstone was on the Adventures, purchasing the complete sets at a significant discount for the biggest bang for the buck.  Even so, I could have opted to earn them via regular play at the rate of roughly 1 wing per week.   With most games, there is a dynamic where, “You need the gear to get THE GEAR” – i.e. it is easier to beat a monster with a +1 longsword as compared to a rusty dagger.  Different game… same principle.

Players need to know what they could have to have any interest of getting it – which brings us to:

The Arena

Players have the choice to purchase card packs for 100 gold or enter The Arena for 150 gold.  Even if you don’t win a single match in The Arena, you are guaranteed 1 card pack plus a random reward (gold, dust for crafting, or a single card).  The average Arena ticket sees 3 wins before accumulating 3 losses, and is considered the breakeven point (as in 1 card pack plus roughly 50 gold of random reward value).  One can go “infinite” if they can average 7 wins per ticket (1 card pack plus 150 gold).  That’s a rarity, but some are doing this and you can easily find them on YouTube (Trump and Kripparian are two who come to mind).

The Arena exposed me to lots of cards that I didn’t have – and realizing that card value is not entirely dependent upon card rarity, but presenting lots of new possible strategies based upon card synergy.  Any card in Hearthstone can show up in an Arena Deck – exposing players with a basic collection to lots of cool cards.  Players are given 3 classes to choose from and then proceed to make a choice on 30 three card options and having to make difficult decisions.  It was The Arena and the potential of “endless rewards” that ultimately convinced me to buy the Adventure Packs – and really learn the game.

Choices.  Decisions.  These are the bread and butter of the games that most people enjoy most.

 Blizzard’s Marketing is Comprehensive

It also needs to be noted that Blizzard runs cross promotions for most of its games.  Reaching level 20 with a new character in World of Warcraft®  will get you a new Hero portrait (vanity item) in Hearthstone.  Starting an account in Hearthstone and completing a few achievements will net you a free mount in WoW.  Of special interest to developers is that Blizzard starts promoting some of its new releases by almost a year in advance.  Almost everything Blizzard does includes some marketing component – either to attract new players or retain existing ones.  Of course, their player base does fluctuate substantially, but that is normal to product and release cycles.

Aside from daily quests, Blizzard has game content for almost every major holiday – coinciding with appropriate email promotional mailings.  They have a recruit-a-friend programs along with generous rewards for group play.  Early on, Blizzard was one of the first to offer free CD-trials of its Warcraft RTS games (mid-1990s).  Leastwise, when it comes to marketing a game, take a look at what Blizzard has done and is doing because it is intrinsic to virtually everything they do, including game design.  Their latest moves in WoW have been to simplify character skills and abilities with an eye toward 1) making games fun to watch and 2) make it easier for eSports casters to highlight the action in broadcast events.

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans debuted in 1994 – 22 years ago, which translates to being older than dirt by computer game standards.  There have been a lot of great game companies that have risen and fallen since, but Blizzard not only survived, it has thrived.  My simple assertion to game developers of today is to take a look at what other successful game companies have done and are doing – and try to emulate them.  That starts with producing high quality games, yes — but there’ve been a lot of high quality games produced by companies that have long since bit the dust.  What transcends everything?  Marketing – constantly expanding your audience, getting new and dedicated players.  Including marketing principles in your game design is what retains them.

Following recent posts on eSports, it seems like a good idea to get into what it means for the world of mobile apps, particularly on the design side.   While many eSports games are played on PC’s, more and more are becoming available for iOS and Android.   Several of the Top 50  eSports Games can be played on mobile already, Hearthstone and World of Tanks Blitz being two quick examples.

Additionally, there are hundreds of apps built around one or many different eSports games – as mods, dedicated game news, gaming tips, training and managing play statistics.  For example, with League of Legends, one of the most popular eSports games, you might look at:

Or, for other popular games:

These are just a few examples, but they provide a wide range of examples to draw upon for app ideas that can tie into a game.  You will need to carefully examine the terms and conditions of each game to avoid legal and copyright issues.  It is advisable to contact and work with the game company, many of which welcome community support.  It can pay huge dividends to get a publisher’s approval and support.  Their approval boosts the potential for successful, popular players to publicly use your app on their live stream events further boosting your visibility.

To come up with ideas, reading the publisher’s game forum and community forums can help you get a feel for what players are looking for.  By looking at what is available, too, you may get ideas on what could be done to make it better, or offer more.

There’s Always Something New Coming

Always bear in mind that hardware and software technology is constantly evolving and can be expected to mitigate the physical differences and limitations of both personal computers and mobile devices.  The science fiction of a decade ago is increasingly becoming the reality of today – from virtual reality experiences and holograms to neural implants and Drones getting bundled up with the whole Internet of Things.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.  – William Gibson

Several inquiries over the past few weeks have come from non-developers with ideas for mobile apps. Half of the questions concerned how to go about creating an app, while the other half focused on finding funding or sponsors for the their app idea.  Some attention has been given to this, but it can be expanded upon.

Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Vetting your idea can save you a lot of time, energy and money. I recently was at a conference where a “senior investor” was bragging about having started something like 70 businesses, of which more than 60 were “disasters.” It was painful – listening to him that is, as it is highly indicative that he spent little or no time vetting his start-up ideas.

Going into mobile app development without being or having a mobile app developer is an uphill battle. It can be won, but that will come through a focused, persistent effort for a good product backed by a good business and marketing plan. It’s one thing to make an app; it is another to make a profit on it. Understand that 90+% of apps are distributed for free and roughly 70% of mobile app developers are not breaking even.

But you do have one advantage.  If you are not an app developer you won’t get caught up in making an app just because you can – and then trying to monetize it in a very competitive market.  While a developer can make an app for free, all of the time invested in making it and then trying to monetize it is an expense.  Instead, your time can be devoted to evaluating whether you can monetize your idea for an app.

Research is critical.

There are millions of apps; odds are pretty good that there is already an app similar to what you have in mind. There may not be, though. Even if there is something closely resembling your idea, there could still be room to compete.

You want to make informed decisions, either way. Fortunately, initial research is pretty easy – consisting mostly of keyword searches on search engines and app stores. Simply use the words that would define what the app does as your keywords. If you intend for your app to be specific to a specific geographical region, you can add it (i.e. India, Maharashtra, Mumbai).

Example: If you wanted to create an app that will connect you with fire department, ambulance, police department, etc. via one button, you could use keywords like:

*  ambulance app

*  ambulance app Mumbai

*  emergency service app

*  emergency speed dial app

Your First Decision Point

This early research should bring you to your first decision point – to proceed or not?  No one else can really answer that for you – it depends upon your degree of interest, how much you can and are willing to invest, what the competition looks like and what you think the monetization potential could be.

Leastwise, having spent some time examining what already exists you should be able to reach one of the following decisions:

  1. No – there are already lots of apps out there that do mostly what I had in mind, or
  2. Yes – my idea looks better than anything else that I’ve seen and it warrants further examination.

Don’t be disappointed if you decide not to pursue your idea, you’ve avoided a bad investment of your time and resources.  This does not preclude you from trying to evolve your idea, or since you’ve started looking at the wide world of mobile app development — perhaps exploring other ideas!

Feature Lists

While you are doing the searches, keep track of the URL and app names of anything that comes close to what you have in mind. You will likely want to download and try using those apps, or at least make a list of their features to compare (or add) to yours.

This is not to say that your app needs to include everything that other apps do, just to provide you a broader perspective on what you could do.

It is also worthwhile to evaluate the effort other developers put into creating their app. This type of information might be found on their company web site, possibly news stories or press releases concerning fundraising, talking with mobile developers or even raising questions on public forums (Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, etc.). This can yield information like the company having received grant, investment money or is receiving specialized assistance, that it involves complex code or needs to connect with third party systems/software, has special security issues, and so forth.

Try to get an idea for:

  • how many developers worked on the app?
  • how long did it take them to create the app?
  • how is their app performing (# of downloads)?
  • are they getting good end-user reviews?
  • does it appear that the app is profitable for them?

Exact information is not really needed here. A rough approximation is useful for having something to compare against.  Knowing their app required only one developer three months to create or required a large team six months, will help you gauge the resources you will need to produce your app.

One emergency service app, for example, raised over $60k via a Kickstarter campaign plus $500k in contests in conjunction with students from MIT and Harvard – two prestigious universities.   That’s an indication that what may seem like a simple idea is really quite complex.  Their app would need to include GPS data, automatically acquire local emergency numbers, handshake with every telco and mobile operator to place calls even when the user has a “zero balance” on their account, etc.

Avoid the Mom Test

It is essential to ask questions and listen to the answers, preferably from people able to provide an objective and informed answer.  That means avoiding asking your friends and family…

“Mom, is this a great idea for an app or what?”

“Oh, absolutely Dear, that’s the best app idea ever!”

Functionally, the more critical the answers are, the greater their value. You don’t need people to tell you that your idea is great. You like it enough to question whether it is worth pursuing. You need someone to play devil’s advocate – why it is not great. That provides you the opportunity to make your idea even better and more competitive.

All of this barely scratches the surface.  If you would like more, take a look at Part One and Part Two of “Non-Developers with Ideas for Apps” to add some additional perspective.  Then, feel free to explore the rest of the Developer’s Guide as there is a lot of information useful not just for developers, but in almost any business (variable by article and subject matter, of course).   The next few articles will also be devoted to how non-developers can get into the mobile app market one way or the other.


Occasionally, I make reference to games from the distant past (sometimes from DOS-land), as frequently they are made into the apps of today. Just as much as I like looking back on the development of games, it is interesting to take a look forward at what the games of tomorrow might look like.

Accelerating technological achievements are paving the way for all of the following:

  1. Mobile devices becoming as powerful as Personal Computers.
  2. Increasingly accessible and affordable, globally.
  3. Real-time voice translation overcoming language barriers.
  4. Increasing popularity of eSports, tournaments and events.
  5. Increasingly realistic Virtual Reality.
  6. The inherent potential of the Internet of Things.
  7. Emergence of Holographic technology.
  8. Efforts to develop artificial intelligence leading to smarter software.
  9. Rise of the Drones…
  10. Robots and human augmentation.

Developers, in particular, should consider these points at length and let their creativity roam wild about the applications they are likely to create in the future.

To extrapolate one line of development, it is likely that the “Internet” will develop into a Virtual Reality Universe. That’s a long way off.   Social networking will eventually rely less upon chat, instant messaging and email and more upon virtually meeting in scuba diving gear to explore the Great Blue Hole off the shores Belize, or anywhere else, real or imaginary. Instead of watching reality television, you will be a virtual participant.   Eventually, we may not be able to tell the difference between a real piece of chocolate cake and virtual one. All of that, and a lot more, is still quite distant – but perhaps nowhere near as distant as some may insist.

Knowing our approximate destinations provides us a lot of insight on the steps we need to take next.

Let’s start with real-time voice translation. This opens up billions of hitherto hard to open doors. If you can do real-time voice translation, you are not far away from being able to translate the entire universe of movies, television and music. Combine this with voice-morphing capabilities and you can have anyone’s voice sound (potentially) like any other voice.

Extrapolate this further, with perhaps future versions of Looksery, and not only could you have someone sound like someone else, but look like them, too. Consider, for example, that several major movie studios are trying to digitally replicate now deceased actors and actresses. It then becomes conceivable that anyone could insert themselves into almost any digital production. You could literally be anyone you want to be and/or fashion them in your image, so to speak.

Picture or it did not happen is an obsolete argument. The “tech world” is in the early stages of being able to do all of these things.

Holographic Technology.   Where would we be without Star Trek and Star Wars? First, we will be looking at holographs much like another form of conventional media. Instead of playing out on a flat television screen, it will unfold in space.

A digression, but this reminds me of when I was four years old and wondering, being confused about, why we could not see what was to the left or right of the television screen?

The spatial limitations of holographs are likely to limit their utility in the long-term. Of special interest is the potential to virtually interact within a holographic environment. This could result in holographic or VR amusement and theme parks. Thirty years ago, we used to insert a coin to play arcade games. This tech component is likely to require high-end gear, but it is conceivable that people could rent that gear on a “pay to play by the hour” basis.

The future has not been written, but there’s a lot to look forward to. For many developers, this may seem far-fetched.

The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson

It is here and it is constantly evolving. I spend a fair amount of time examining military technology where a lot of what was science-fiction is quite real – drones, lasers, god-like surveillance systems, self-guiding bullets, even invisibility cloaks.

Knowledge of most of these things is in the public domain.  But, it prompts one begins to wonder, “Considering what is public, what is actually secret?” We likely aren’t going to get an answer on that. One thing of some interest is the growing chatter on developments of artificial intelligence.

That is a lot more advanced than what most of today’s developers are likely to work on, but it helps set the tone for ideas that might be considered. The possibilities are endless. They don’t happen all at once, but are the culmination of lots of little steps. Whatever it is that you like to develop, there is a place for it.

“No single competency is enabling us to elevate the Starbucks brand more than our global leadership I mobile, digital, and loyalty. Starbucks is a clear leader in mobile payments and we are encouraged by how consumers have embraced mobile apps as a way to pay.” – Howard Schultz, 2013

Starbucks generated over $1 billion via mobile payments in 2013. Keep this in mind.

Whether you have a large team, a small team or engaging as a solo developer the option is always there for you to approach other businesses to see what you could do for them. That may sound intimidating if you have not done that before, but the worst anyone can say is “No”. This is not something restricted to mobile app development, suffice that many developers are not generating as much revenue as they would like by developing directly for the consumer market.

Back in the 1990’s, working for Continental Cablevision’s subsidiary distributing Primestar Satellite TV (DirecTV’s #1 competitor then), it seemed odd that they did not have a web site. They got one though, simply because someone asked why they didn’t have one and provided them a prototype of what their web site might look like. That helped launch a new career and a business, influencing also the career paths of several of the managers who supported the proposal.

The idea for mobile app developers is to try to identify opportunities that:

  1. enhance what a business is already doing,
  2. fill “gaps” in what a business should be doing but is not,
  3. apply what other businesses are successfully doing to those who are not doing it,
  4. simplify or solve problems that have a significant impact on a business.

The Macro Picture aims to enable, “Everyone in the world being connected via devices and other things so that they can communicate and do business with anyone, anywhere, anytime.” The race is on to be able to do that.  Companies unable to adjust to this paradigm will likely either go out of business or be acquired by others applying to it. We can reasonably guess that at some point, almost all global purchases will be processed digitally.

From concerns about taxes and untaxed “shadow economies”, money laundering, financial support of terrorism, currency counterfeiting, to simply making it easier to do business, this is in the future. It may be years away yet, but active efforts are moving in this direction, (with Sweden being a prime example)

The future is already here; it is just not evenly distributed.
– William Ford Gibson (See

That’s a bird’s eye view to provide you ample ideas to play with.

By knowing where everything is going it becomes significantly easier to “reverse engineer” all of things that will get us there. That is to say, for example with languages – the idea is that eventually the entire sum of all human knowledge that is in print will be available to everyone in every language. To some extent, that already exists now, insomuch as things like Google Translate and other translation software can provide a fairly decent gist of content.

For years, I had questions about who was going to pay for all those translators, but the solution is far simpler and exponentially more economical. Back in 1993, it was one of my goals to see something like the works of Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall translated into English. One of his works was written in seven languages – Latin, Hebraic, Greek, Aramaic, German, French and one entire paragraph in English. Conventionally, that would be difficult to translate, cost a lot, and there’d be all of maybe 200-300 people in the world who would even be interested in it. Today, the means of doing so is almost free – provided one could get hold of either one of the seven remaining copies or a microfiche copy of it.

These may seem like digressions, but cover some very simple problems to some very complex ones, all of which are par for the course for small businesses. There are millions of small businesses out there, not to mention plenty of big businesses, too.

Every creation does not need to be unique, suffice that you can create your own apps or coordinate with other developers to adapt apps as needed to fit almost any need.

Fundamentally, it is you – the mobile app developer who is best able to help the world’s businesses get to where we are going. Whether or not we “really want to get there” is a totally different question, but the race is on.