The Psychology Behind User Retention in Mobile Games

The Psychology Behind User Retention in Mobile Games

by Andrea Knezovic

In the realm of mobile gaming, attracting players is just half the battle. The real challenge lies in keeping them engaged, coming back for more, and transforming them into loyal users. This is where understanding the science and psychology behind user retention becomes a game-changer.

This article delves deep into the models, triggers, and strategies that can help you boost user retention and consequently, your game’s success.

Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s dig into why user retention should matter to you from a financial standpoint.

The Financial Imperative of User Retention

You’ve likely heard the saying, “Retention is the new growth.” In the mobile gaming industry, this phrase couldn’t ring more true.

While attracting new users to your game may give you that initial surge of excitement and financial boost, keeping them around has longer-lasting economic benefits.

Why User Retention Matters

Long-term engagement translates to a steady flow of revenue. Whether it’s in-app purchases, ads, premium subscriptions, or all of them together, retained users tend to generate more income over their lifetime compared to one-time users.

Real-World Data

Studies have shown that just a 5% increase in user retention can lead to an uptick in profits of 25% or more. The lifetime value (LTV) of a retained user far outweighs the immediate revenue from a first-time user.

This is why top companies in the sector invest significantly in understanding the psychology behind user retention. It’s not just about keeping the game entertaining, but about weaving scientifically-backed triggers and behavioral tactics into the game design.

User Retention Statistics for 2023

Just to give you a general idea of what you should aim for, here are the latest user retention statistics for Q1 2023. However, note that this is an average for all mobile games. Some genres tend to perform better than others when it comes to user retention.

Data source: Adjust.

Day 1 retention for mobile gaming apps is 28%, which is one percent less than in 2022. After one week, mobile games retain 13% of users, also a one percent decrease compared to the previous year. 30-day retention for mobile games is only 6%, showcasing how difficult it is to retain players.

But fear not.

Next, we’ll examine the scientific models that can serve as your blueprint for better user retention.

Scientific Models Behind User Retention

Understanding the science of why users stay can elevate your game from a fleeting trend to an enduring success. The good news is that several models have been developed to understand the psychology behind user retention.

These models can serve as guiding frameworks as you develop or refine your mobile game.

The Hook Model

This model, conceived by Nir Eyal, describes a loop that consists of four components: Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, and Investment.

  • Trigger: This is the catalyst that prompts the user to act. In gaming, this could be a notification or an intriguing game challenge.
  • Action: The response you desire from the user, like opening the app or completing a level.
  • Variable Reward: The unpredictable element of reward that keeps users engaged. Think of a loot box with random items or a roulette wheel of bonuses.
  • Investment: This is the time or effort the user puts into the game, which then sets the stage for future triggers and actions.

The Fogg Behavior Model

Developed by B.J. Fogg, this model posits that three elements must converge for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.

  • Motivation: This is the desire to perform an action. For example, the motivation to beat a high score can drive a player to keep playing.
  • Ability: This refers to the ease with which the user can perform the desired action. If a game is too complex or difficult, it can hinder retention.
  • Triggers: Similar to the Hook Model, these are the prompts that nudge the user into action. However, in the Fogg Behavior Model, triggers are most effective when both motivation and ability are high.


Psychological Triggers for User Retention

Now that we’ve explored the scientific frameworks that can guide your approach, let’s focus on the psychological triggers that can elevate your game’s retention rates. These are the invisible levers, deeply rooted in human psychology, that prompt players to stick around and become loyal users.

Instant Gratification

In today’s fast-paced world, waiting is often seen as an inconvenience.

Offering immediate rewards can create a dopamine spike that reinforces the player’s action. For example, giving instant bonuses for completing daily challenges can make users more inclined to return day after day.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

The allure of limited-time events, special characters, or exclusive in-game items can create a sense of urgency. This Fear of Missing Out drives players to continue engaging with the game to capitalize on these rare opportunities.

Whether it’s a holiday-themed live event or a weekend-only special dungeon, these time-sensitive elements can significantly boost player engagement.

Social Validation

Humans are inherently social creatures, and the need for social validation is a potent psychological trigger. Implementing social features like leaderboards, social sharing, and team events can tap into this human trait.

For instance, enabling players to showcase their achievements to friends or ranking them in a global leaderboard can provide that extra push to keep them engaged.

mobile gamers

User Behavior and Its Impact on Retention

While scientific models and psychological triggers are essential, they don’t operate in a vacuum. Your users aren’t a monolith; they come with different preferences, habits, and behaviors.

Recognizing and accommodating these differences can be the key to upping your game’s retention metrics.

Segmentation Strategies

Categorizing your users based on certain traits or behaviors allows you to tailor the gaming experience to different segments.

For instance, casual gamers may respond better to short, achievable goals, while more committed players may be looking for complex challenges and long-term achievements.

By segmenting your user base, you can apply the psychology behind user retention in ways that resonate with different types of players.

User Journey Mapping

Understanding the user’s journey from onboarding to becoming a loyal player provides valuable insights into the touchpoints that matter most.

Are users dropping off after the first level? Is there a point where the game gets too difficult or too easy?

By identifying these critical moments, you can fine-tune the elements that contribute to retention. This could mean reworking introductory tutorials for newcomers or adding advanced levels for experienced players.

Tactics to Improve Loyalty

Once you’ve grasped the scientific and psychological foundations for user retention, along with an understanding of your user behavior, you’re primed to focus on building loyalty.

Loyal users are the base of any successful mobile game. Here are some time-tested tactics to consider implementing.


Personalization is more than just slapping the user’s name on a welcome screen.

It’s about curating experiences that feel tailor-made for the individual player.

This could involve customizing levels based on past behavior, or suggesting in-app purchases that align with the user’s interests. Through data analytics, you can gain insights into individual player behavior and offer a gaming experience that feels unique and personal, boosting loyalty in the process.


While your primary product is a game, there are additional layers of gamification that can be added to increase loyalty.

This could be a loyalty points system, where players can accumulate points not just by playing, but also by participating in events or inviting new users. These points can then be redeemed for in-game perks, adding an extra layer of engagement.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Loyalty doesn’t exist in a bubble; it requires ongoing engagement. With effective CRM strategies, you can keep your users informed and interested. This might mean sending out push notifications to lure them back into the game or offering special rewards for milestone achievements. The aim is to make the user feel valued and appreciated, further solidifying their loyalty to your game.

Ready to put these insights into action? Let’s explore some practical steps to increase user retention.

social validation

Increasing User Retention: Practical Steps

User retention isn’t a “set it and forget it” endeavor; it’s a continual process of assessment, refinement, and implementation. Here are some practical steps you can take to achieve better retention rates.

A/B Testing

Data drives informed decisions. A/B testing allows you to run experiments comparing two versions of a game feature to determine which performs better in terms of user retention.

Maybe you’re considering two different kinds of reward systems, or perhaps you’re torn between two sets of gameplay mechanics. A/B testing can provide quantifiable results that point you in the right direction.

Data Analytics

To truly understand the factors affecting user retention, you have to delve deep into your game’s analytics.

This involves more than just surface-level metrics like daily active users or in-app purchase rates. Look into session lengths, intervals between sessions, and level drop-off points to identify opportunities for improvement.

Feedback Loop

Never underestimate the value of direct user feedback. This can be obtained through in-game surveys, review analysis, or community forums.

Users are often candid about what they love or loathe about your game. By continuously collecting and analyzing this feedback, you can adjust game features to better align with what your players actually want.

Future User Retention Trends

As we continue to navigate a rapidly evolving landscape, staying ahead of the curve in user retention will require an eye on emerging trends. These are shifts that promise to redefine the ways in which we understand and implement strategies for keeping players engaged.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

The integration of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) into mobile gaming opens up new avenues for user engagement and retention.

These technologies offer immersive experiences that go beyond what traditional gaming can provide, increasing the likelihood of retaining players captivated by this additional layer of realism.

Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

The rise of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency in gaming offers new ways to handle in-game assets and rewards, potentially increasing user retention. As ownership and transfer of in-game assets become more transparent and secure, players may become more invested in staying engaged.

Artificial Intelligence

AI technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated and could play a significant role in personalized gaming experiences. Imagine a game that learns from a player’s behavior and preferences to continually offer more engaging content. This level of personalization could be a major factor in keeping users committed to your game.


About Udonis

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

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