Why Mobile Games Need a Strong “Heartbeat”


Humans require a heartbeat to live. The heart pumps blood including essential nutrients throughout the body to sustain life in a regular cycle and rhythm.


Similarly, mobile games in particular require a similar concept of a “heartbeat” in order to sustain an audience and user interest in a regular cycle and rhythm.

This is especially true for mobile games where retention curves often go straight down. In this post, I claim that having a strong heartbeat can determine the success or failure of a mobile game and illustrate specific points to create games with stronger heartbeats.

So What Defines a Strong Heartbeat?

Having a strong heartbeat should be something a game designer or producer instinctively feels and just understands. Playing through a game, you should be able to have a natural feel for the lack of “something” that otherwise would lead to higher retention and user engagement.

The heartbeat itself doesn’t address the core mechanics in a game, but will help to strengthen the game’s grasp on a user’s attention and latent anticipation for the next gameplay session.

What is this “something” that gives a strong heartbeat? Although more art than science, I break down a strong heartbeat as follows:

  1. Clear objectives
  2. Strong incentives
  3. Appropriate and regular pacing

Let’s go over each in turn…

1. Clear Objectives:

Users at every point in the game should know exactly what their next objective is. Am I trying to clear a level? Is there a new sword I’m trying to buy? Am I trying to defeat a specific boss monster? Am I trying to complete a collection? Am I trying to exact revenge? etc.

Although game objectives can differ between different games, in all well designed mobile games the next specific objective or objectives should be very apparent to the user at all times.

Messaging and surfacing objectives to the user can be accomplished in a number of ways. For example: clearly depicted progression maps showing how far a user has advanced in the game, a prominent level/experience bar, your character becoming more powerful and looking more bad-ass, a GvG battle timer, a prominent PVP beat down message, etc.

As a game designer you need to specifically design and message these objectives to users. Again, you should design what the user is trying to grasp for at all points within the game and make sure the user knows it too.

Example: Candy Crush Saga

Objective = Map progression and beating friends

candy crush objectives

Here both a PVE objective to clear more levels and thereby unlock new puzzles as well as a light PVP objective to beat your friend’s progression is clearly conveyed to the user.

Further, not only should the objectives be clear but how to achieve those objectives; there should be a clear path. In other words, the user flow to do “objective X” should be easy to understand and the UI should make it easy for the user to achieve.

Example: Clash of Clans

COC understand what to do

The core loop in Clash of Clans has been designed to be very easy to understand, the UI highlights and makes the next action obvious, and the loop is very tight: Attack -> Make Money -> Buy X -> Attack.

Counter-Example: Rage of Bahamut


In this case… not so clear what to do next.

2. Strong Incentives:

By doing “action X”, the user needs to feel that the reward will be worth it. There needs to be a strong incentive for achieving the objectives: more power, new content, over the top visual animation, etc.

  • In card battle games, one of the key draws to retaining and engaging users are the frequent loot drops and the ability to convert those drops into increasing the power of the user’s existing cards.
  • In city building games, the anticipation of buying or upgrading a building to unlock new units is a powerful incentive to keep grinding.
  • In PVP games, the incremental advancement in power to beat someone who just defeated you can be very powerful depending on how strong the rewards and losses are

Besides the reward itself, the user needs to feel that the actions they are doing will lead to something valuable. So the reward in general should be:

  1. Perceived by the user  as valuable and worth their time
  2. Understood by the user (if the user doesn’t realize they are getting the reward it misses the point)
  3. Incrementally frequent

Example: Marvel: War of Heroes

marvel WOH incentives

In the example above, the incentive to upgrade is clearly depicted and messaged to the user. We know that once we get Hawkeye to Fusion S Rare he’s going to have 4 full yellow dots (whatever that actually means) and he’s gonnna have badass lightning in the background obviously depicting much greater card power. Similarly, She Hulk (above Hawkeye) is gonna be able to bust through walls and shit once she’s SS Rare. You get the point.

Finally, the rewards need to come frequently enough to properly incentivize the core game loops and let the user feel progress towards their clearly messaged objectives. It just needs to “feel right” where users feel “good” about continuing to invest time into the game. However, the rewards should not be too much where it feels too cheap after the initial set of rewards or users progress too quickly in the game.

3. Appropriate and Regular Pacing:

Just as rewards should be appropriately paced, there needs to be an overall pacing and rhythm of game events to make the user feel that they are progressing and investing into the game. Further, the regularity of the “heartbeat” makes the user feel as if there is a life to the game and updating/newness occurring.

The types of regular anticipated events often include:

  1. Level up
  2. Loot drop
  3. Upgrade
  4. New Building
  5. Power-up
  6. PVP actions
  7. GVG actions/events
  8. Social event (e.g., social raid boss, competition, etc.)
  9. etc.

Example from Immortalis:

Immortalis Pacing

How Do I Use this Concept In Practice?

I recommend testing your game for a strong heartbeat through play testing at different points in the game.

As you play, just ask these simple questions as you play through (e.g., just after tutorial and then every few minutes playing):

  1. What’s my objective? Is it clear?
  2. How do I achieve my objective? Is it easy to understand and navigate?
  3. What happens when I achieve my objective? Is it rewarding enough?

Finally, think about the pacing. Are the objectives and rewards appropriately paced?

The ideal buildup is to cause your user to desire X, work for X, cause user increasing stress while working for X, and then release the stress once X is achieved. Over and over in a regular rhythm.


In this post, I give the reader an alternative lens to evaluate the attractiveness of their game using the metaphor of a heartbeat. I claim that the requirement for a strong heartbeat is especially true for mobile games in particular due to typically poor user retention and engagement characteristics on mobile devices.

Breathe more life into your game  by carefully thinking through and then acting on the concepts discussed!




  • May

    Posted December 4, 2013 5:41 pm

    Thanks for the article. Now I understand what the developers are trying to do, haha.

    It was too common that I didn’t realize as a user. The card battle games I’m playing, in my point of view are using these concepts(maybe sometimes poorly),but somehow it still get lots of complaints and feel boring.

    My questions are
    (1)How can we know exactly if the rewards are too little or too much?

    (2)Why is it important to make game that is even enjoyable for users who don’t pay?

    (3)When a lot of complaints come, which kinds of complaints that we need to treat properly above the others? Are there any complaints or any type of users that we can omit?

    There are lots of users’ type, for example, users who pay money, users who play for free, users who have little time, users who can play 23hours(lol)..

    By the way, I don’t know if Japan’s card battle games are that good compared to the non-Japan’s. It’s just there are lots of complaints and no strategy in gameplay, merely ‘trick’ users to pay..

  • Joseph Kim

    Posted December 7, 2013 4:03 am

    1. This is a bit of art, objectives, analytics, and balance. In most game companies, I have witnessed that there is very little structured thought on this and that rewards are designed based on “feel”. There typically aren’t very sophisticated data analysts who can determine a good reward structure and on the flip side at more sophisticated, data driven game companies the rewards are often structured based on some complex formulas that ultimately may not provide the best user experience.

    The art part of rewards is that the reward has to “feel good”, it needs to be enough to incentivize the user to keep coming back and keep engaged. The objectives part has to do with whether there are specific or higher priority objectives e.g., user retention vs. balance vs. trying to stretch out gameplay (due to content limitations), etc. The analytics part has to do with measuring the reward structure to ensure that KPIs don’t suffer based upon reward structure changes. Finally, there should always be a check to make sure the game retains an overall balance from an economy perspective.

    2. It’s mainly not. So, what you’ll find in many games is that there could be hidden hard gates that actually stop users from progressing in a game after a certain level unless they pay. Just look at Candy Crush, after a specific # of levels you pay or spam or stop. The same is true for Kingdoms of Camelot and Clash of Clans (e.g., Town Hall level 6). I also say “mainly not” because as is typically the case there are exceptions. Some games are better with a larger network e.g., Tinder (not a game but an easily understood example). Other games are better when there are Sheep and Wolves, where Wolves who pay have a better game experience by having a large number of Sheep (who don’t pay) to prey upon.

    3. This is also situational. I would argue that some games like Modern War where such a huge % of your revenue is derived from your mega whales you should prioritize providing those mega-whales as good of a game experience as possible. In other games, better insight about game improvements can be gleaned by understanding which complaints are voiced by the largest percentage of users. Sorry I can’t give a good answer here but ultimately, I would say that in general I would take 2 views on this: 1. What complaints are my highest paying users griping about and 2. What complaints are most common or most critical. After that, this is where the “art” comes in and the producer/game designer whoever is responsible for product vision must make the call.

    Hope this helps…

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