December 14

Game of War, 4X Games and the Future of Mobile Mid-Core

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Introduction

Obtrusive UX, confusing gameplay, dated graphics. These are just some of the subjective comments I hear from many of my peers in the games industry about Machine Zone’s smash hit Game of War. And yet despite these criticisms the game has been a top 5 grossing game for over 2 years, and it’s successor Mobile Strike has joined it at the top of the F2P mobile game pile. Numerous other companies have copied these games and seen success too. But how and why do these games do so well, and what can we learn from them? This article takes a holistic view of 4X Games, breaks down some of the key design and features of the genre and make some predictions of where these games will go in the future.

 

What is a “4X” Game?

The Age of Empires series developed by Ensemble is a classic 4X game and one of the finest strategy games ever made.

Game of War calls itself an “… interactive Action Strategy MMO GAME” which is a good start to try to describe the genre type that this game occupies. I’d use a slightly different and more old school term – 4X. This is a term originally coined in the 1990’s to describe PC strategy games where players control a kingdom and eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Some games that you may be familiar with that use these mechanics include Age of Empires, Civilisation, Alpha Centauri, Total War: Rome and Master of Orion.

  • Explore refers to a large world that players scouts across a map to reveal surrounding territories, resources and other players. Often the player is unable to view the whole world at the beginning of the game so there is a grandiose feeling of uncovering the mystery and secrets that lie in the game world.
  • Expand refers to mechanics where players claim new territory by creating new settlements, or extending the influence of existing settlements.
  • Exploit refers to mechanics where players gather and use resources in areas they control to improve the efficiency of that usage. This often presents itself in min / maxing city economy to optimize production of resources and military might.
  • Exterminate refers to attacking and eliminating rival players. (Or in Game of War “zero-ing” another player). Since in some games all territory is eventually claimed, eliminating a rival’s presence may be the only way to achieve further expansion.

Currently in western mobile games, the mobile mid-core space is dominated by 4X games such as Game of War / Mobile Strike, Build and Battle games such as Clash of Clans / Boom Beach and Synchronous Battle games such as Clash Royale (and to a lesser extent Hearthstone). Whilst a lot of these games are thrown into one melting pot (Action Strategy / mid-core games) and fight over very similar players, it must be noted that each genre of game is completely different to one another with many different nuances and unique game structures.

A Brief History of Mobile 4X Games

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Some of the most successful 4X games over the last 5 years on mobile include Clash of Kings, Vikings, Mobile Strike and Kingdom of Camelot.

In 2011 (!) Kabam ported their highly successful Facebook game Kingdoms of Camelot to mobile. The Facebook game itself was a clone of a new wave of Chinese web games on PC that had been very successful in the East. These web games had been developed by small fledgling games companies that had tried to create online 4X PC games but which had made some changes based on technical ability and resources of the studio. Rather than making a highly proficient battle game such as in Age of Empire or Total War, battles were a purely metagame driven interaction – you didn’t even see the battle take place! Instead the developers utilised the power of the Interent and connectivity to create a game of Alliance and Social interplay where teamwork and betrayal were the order of the day.

^ Does the above screenshot look familiar? It’s actually from Kingdoms of Camelot on mobile, released in 2011. 3 whole years before Game of War, and a game that GoW borrowed very heavily from.

Back in 2011, midcore was only getting started on mobile and Kabam’s advantage of having a large userbase playing their game already meant that many players came into their mobile port to give it a big initial boost. Perhaps unwittingly they had also found that mobile was an even better platform for their game than Facebook or the web. The ability to send Push Notifications to players or for them to chat to each other via other messaging programs other than using the game made it an even better fit than Facebook.

The game was a big success for Kabam and they decided to reskin the game with a licence to create The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth to tie in with the motion picture release in late 2012. This game was also a big success for the company laying the foundation work for 4X games on mobile. However, it’s fair to say that despite these games being big successes it wasn’t until 2013 when VC-backed Machine Zone released Game of War that the 4X game truly had it’s day in the sun.

The Best Pivot of all-time? The Story of Machine Zone

Machine Zone (or MZ as they are now known) are a fascinating story in themselves. Originally founded in 2008, they were originally called Addmired and produced widgets for MySpace call AddHim and AddHer which were Hot-or-Not style plugins. Whilst it’s fair to say these plugins didn’t set the world alight, the tech stack and social networking know-how clearly ran deep in the company and would later be used in an extremely lucrative way – through connecting players via a social network based around a game.

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An early Machine Zone game called iMob. This was a multiplayer game in the vain of Mafia Wars on Facebook but on mobile.

In 2009, the company pivoted to a F2P games company and released games such as Original Gangstaz and iMob, which were reasonably succesfull but still nothing like the sort of a success that a VC backed company is looking for. It’s rumoured that MZ realised that they had the technical know how to make a world-class mobile social network but didn’t have the user base to make it worthwhile. They therefore decided to make a game that they were confident would get a big enough userbase to make it worthwhile and began working in 2012 on Game of War with an 80 man team working for 18 months to make it happen, including the creation of a messaging infrastructure and language translation layer that would allow worldwide participation in the game’s alliances and chat. But more about that a bit later on.

I find the story of Machine Zone pretty inspiring as it shows that even if you’ve had setbacks in the past, it’s still possible to turn things around. I’ve been to see their CEO Gabe Leydon give a talk before and he comes across as a very passionate CEO. Clearly he bet big on making Game of War, but that bet paid off big time!

 

A Look at Game of War and other 4X Games’ Design

So now for the meat of this article, a look at how Mobile 4X games work. Whilst Kingdom of Camelot was the first and there are many games out there, I’m going to concentrate on Game of War for the bulk of this article as it’s the most successful. Each of the other games have subtle differences, but I think Game of War provides a good platform to look at.

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Don’t let the opening hours of Game of War with it’s simple tap, tap, tap gameplay fool you. This game has some of the most deep gameplay and mechanics seen on mobile.

Usually on my blog I try to go very deep into how games work in terms of loop structure and mechanics. I will do a little bit of that in this article but I want to stress that Game of War is DEEP. The number of features and complexity of this game is incredibly vast and it’s changing and evolving all the time. You can literally play a game like Game of War for years and not touch even 50% of what it has to offer and that is one of the key take-aways from the success of these games. Many people say that Mobile gaming is all about reaching as many players as possible and making games as accessible as possible (and to a large extent this is true), but 4X games are proof that there are many ways to be successful and that there is a sizeable heavy-spending audience out there that are happy to play sprawling, complex games that are highly deep and strategic. Of note, MZ themselves have said that they see average play time for engaged players at around 2 hours a day, playing in 10 12-minute sessions for an average of 12 hours a week. That just shows that there are a lot of consumers who want a deep experience and who spend hours a day on their mobile.

Not Just a Game of War – a Game of POWER

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The most successful 4X games tap into the desire to want to rule and become the King!

Many, many people churn out of Game of War during it’s FTUE which is very archaic in terms of it’s appearance and very simple tap, tap, tap gameplay which gets you to go through the basics but without really intuitively teaching the player why they are doing what they are doing. In fact something which I find puzzling about many 4X games is that they don’t do a good job at telling you what the game is really about. In Game of War’s case it’s about Power, not just literally ( there is a number representing Power shoved in your face at all times) but also the nuances of power and how that is both expressed and felt in a massively multiplayer game with thousands of players playing together all at once.

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The above diagram shows the Feudal Power Pyramid. Game of War creates a game structure and social framework that is very much in line with this diagram, where the ultimate aim is to become the King.

Fittingly for a game set in a medieval setting, Game of War creates many “games within a game” which supports a Feudal style power pyramid. In fact if you’ve ever seen the TV show Game of Thrones, then there is a lot in common in terms of the relationships between Houses being akin to relationships between players in Game of War.

The game takes place on a huge map made up of various kingdoms. Each Kingdom has a Wonder which can be battled over, and then the entire world itself has a “Super Wonder” which can be battled for. The Alliance which controls the Super Wonder effectively rules the game, with the player who is leader of that Alliance the King or Queen of the game. The game structure supports this throughout as the rulers of the game can impose taxes on everyone in the game, or bestow titles on other players and Alliances.

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Walder Frey the leader of House Frey is despicable man who is in it for himself! And a great example of some of the social dynamics possible in Game of War and 4X Games.

No matter which tier players are in their player lifecycle, they have an importance to the game. When starting out you might be small feed in the overall scheme of things, but you still contribute to your Kingdom with the resources you provide. As you climb the ladder you have more and more of an impact on both your Kingdom and the overall game kingdom. You may be part of an Alliance that has no chance of controlling a Wonder or Super Wonder, but you may be able to influence who does get it. That means your support is important for those duking it out and means that negotiation between alliances is extremely important. I will touch on the true strength of social systems in the game in a later section, but the point I want to get across about 4X games is that the dream of being powerful and ruling the roost is incredibly strong as an emotional motivation to play. As you ascend the game, the feeling of seeing other people literally do your bidding to court your favour is extremely addictive and powerful, just as it is in real life. That say that “absoulte Power corrupts absolutely” and if you create a game that facilitates that megalomaniacal power struggle and allows you to pay to get ahead… well you can see from the very outset how this game is so successful.

A Persistent World

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^The Kingdom Map in Game of War. Each one of the Strongholds shown here is a real player that has invested many hours into the game.

Game of War calls itself a MMO strategy game and it’s not lieing. The game is a huge massively multiplayer online persistent world where things are constantly going on. Every action in the game is broadcast to everyone, meaning that every attack, every march and every trade can be seen. The world map itself is also huge which means that the 4X mechanics of eXploration is there for everyone to experience. From a technical perspective to support this level of concurrency is really impressive and it gives the game a real feeling of being alive at all times.

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^ An army is marching towards an enemy city to attack it. 2:51 remain until the army reaches it’s destination. The amount of time it takes to reach a target is a huge part of gameplay and balance in Game of War and mobile 4X games.

This also means that many mechanics are tied too the game world that are very important. Players control a Stronghold which represents their City and people. This is positioned on the game map and the location of it is very important. Making an attack or travelling somewhere means that your troops or hero can be seen going on a march in the world map and takes time. It means that being in a location that is close to people that can help defend you or close to natural resources is very important. Players can also control resource tiles that provide additional resources for a city economy and speak to the eXploit mechanic of 4X games. Whilst on a march or travelling, your own City can be attacked, or you can be attacked mid-march. It leads to all manner of interesting situations and mechanics. You can even “fake” a march against an opponent and then march back to march to someone else. And seeing all of this interplay in realtime makes for fascinating emergent gameplay which is all viweable in real-time.

Game Loop and Core Systems

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A simplified diagram of the absolute core actions in Game of War. Remember the game is super deep, so it’s hard to encapsulate everything on one diagram.

At it’s heart Game of War and it’s copycats use some familiar gameplay. Players own a Stronghold which represents their city of people within a vast world. Worlds are divided into Kingdoms of players and it’s the players aspiration to get more powerful by upgrading their City, Army and Hero to eventually accumulate real tangible power in the world view.

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This player is carrying out most of the core actions in the game: building, researching, training an army and crafting. They have the option to speed up some of their actions and can request help for building their Level 4 Academy.

Once players have completed the FTUE, they can undertake up to 4 core actions at one time (plus some others like questing, but for the purpose of this explanation let’s assume 4). They can Build, Research, Train Troops or Craft in parallel, but can only do one of each at a time (some games such as Mobile Strike allow the player to purchase an additional builder to multi-build, but let’s assume one for now). Thus a player’s most basic session would involve coming into the game, setting up each of these 4 actions spending some of their resources, requesting help and then leaving. Once one of the actions has been completed they can come into the game to setup another action to progress through the game optimally.

Time Makes All Men Equal – Unless You Pay or Be Social

It’s the oldest of monetisation mechanics in F2P gaming but still one of the strongest – timers and impatience. In Game of War, once carrying out an action, it takes time to complete. Initially timers can be skipped for free or are very quick to ease the player into the game, but will take days or months as the player progresses.

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Sometimes when playing the game, Alliance members will request help, making the highlighted icon appear. Tapping on it takes the player to the Alliance Help screen where they can help their Alliance members.

The player has a few options available to them to avoid waiting for too long. They can request help from their Alliance members which is a core social interaction with huge value and that both makes joining an alliance necessary to progress but also harnesses the power of social reciprocation and alturism to make players co-operate and build bonds between them. This encourages you to be online and playing the game as much as possible and for your Alliance members to do the same. This is a great mechanic then for building up engagement and meaningful interactions between alliance members.

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Speed-Ups are available in GoW ranging from a very short period of time all the way up to days. This helps balance the session design between short and long sessions as well as benefiting the reward loop and monetisation opportunities.

Players can also use speed-ups to speed up the timers in the game. Speed-ups are thrown about liberally in the game through rewards and from IAP bundles / kick-backs. These speed-ups are a very clever piece of game design because they give the player enormous power into how they want to play during their session. It’s very easy in Game of War to have short sessions by just queuing up basic actions and waiting for them to complete to adhere to the “many small sessions per day” model that is proven to work well in F2P. However, it also offers players the opportunity to play for very long sessions as boosts that have been saved up can be used in succession. Perfect for playing on the weekend when players have more time on their hands. And of course what F2P game would not allow you to pay to skip the timer altogether? Game of War offers that opportunity too, in case players are in a rush to move through the game quickly.

Hollisitic Loop and Gameplay

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^Basic actions tie into the test of the core game. Players are encouraged to complete quests which push them to make actions that will help them progress and get more powerful. This makes them more proficient in PvP and in the Kingdom View where the elder game lies.

At the beginning of the game, players are given a multitude of quests to complete to help them level up their stronghold and hero to get more powerful and set them up with the basics they need to play the game. Resources are generated every hour and players can choose many strategies as to how they want to progress and eXpand. They can choose to boost their economy to generate more resources to help fund their Alliance or themselves, or could choose to invest in the military side of the game to get stronger, potentially working with Alliance members who will help fund their efforts to min / max an Alliance economy.

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A brief look at how PvP works in Game of War. Notice how there is no actual battle. It takes place entirely within a spreadsheet and algorithm hidden to the player.

Like many midcore games, there is also PvP which contains the real elder game in it’s interaction with the Kingdom Map and other players and alliances. Something which I find truly fascinating is that most of these games have no actual battle that they can see, they are just sent a battle report. This probably harks back to web world where budgets and technical know-how meant that making a battle game was a tricky endeavor but on mobile it perhaps saves teaching the player about another level of game complexity. It makes the game incredibly “meta”  as players have to imagine how the battle played out, and although battle reports are sent to players it is hard to understand what they can do to optimise their battle performance. This adds a lot of hidden depth and mastery in terms of optimising combat performance but makes the game even more complicated to learn initially, so there is a trade off made here.

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A look at Game of War’s hero and crafting systems and how they tie together.

Another core mechanic in the game is that of developing the player’s hero. Players are given a hero randomly to begin with who represents the player’s general in the game world. The hero can earn skills over time, and can be equipped with gear to make them stronger. Crafting itself is a super deep system into which players can literally spend millions of pounds and hours to get the best items to make them more powerful in the game. Players can also capture and even execute enemy heroes to gain buffs in their war efforts making for some awesome social dynamics (think Jamie Lannister being captured by the Starks in Game of Thrones and the negotiation by Catelyn Stark to set him free).

Wonders and Territory Control

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A screenshot from Snow_1021 showing the battle for the Kingdom of Fire Super Wonder last year. Look how many players are battling it out for this one!

It could be said that the true elder game of Game of War is about territory control and the passage of power that comes from it. On the map owning certain tiles offers additional resources or powers and none is more obvious than Wonders and particularly the Super Wonder, which decides who will be Emperor or Empress of Game of War.  Opening once a month, the top players and alliances battle over a 4 day period to see who will rule the real, with the winner being determined based on total time held during the 4 day period. Given such prestige, many players teleport to the Super Wonder in hopes of holding it for just one second and get a screen shot of their name as Emperor, making it a mad free-for-all.

Becoming the ruler of the game had huge implications. They can bestow titles and buffs / debuffs on other players and alliances. They can even set a tax rate that every single player in the game must contribute to. Thus being a popular King for the “lesser” players can mean a longer time on the throne… but remember there is always someone out there who wants top spot!

The who sequence of attacking to own a Super Wonder feels like a huge and epic real life war with a lot of teamwork and planning required. It feels a bit like the Game of Thrones episode where Stannis Baratheon tries to take Kings Landing and has to fight against a joint force of Lannisters and Tyrells. Many alliances are made or broken during this period and it really showcases the deep social gameplay that lies at the heart of Game of War and 4X games in general. Take a look at this detailed account from a player who participated to get a good idea of what’s involved.

Getting Zeroed – The Harsh Realities of Life

Just like a real feudal war, Game of War also has a massive harsh and steep learning curve to it’s core game. Losses in this game are permanent so losing troops or a hero can usually cripple you completely (unless you are willing to pay to recover your losses). It’s definitely resulted in me churning from the game a few times over! I find this mechanic very interesting when compared to a game such as Clash of Clans. It’s super hardcore but it really does give you the feeling of power as knowing you could destroy someone so totally that over 3 months of their playtime is rendered moot in just minutes is a very rewarding feeling and ties into what this game is all about – power.

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This player lost over 40 BILLION power in an attack against them. It literally makes me cry just thinking about it…

It’s also a big reason why the game monetises so well. After being zeroed you will be offered packs and hero revives to get you back into the game and if you’ve seen months worth of progress it’s really easy to succumb to expensive packs to get you back into the mix or even to give you even more power than the person who attacked you to get your revenge. It makes the game completely pay-to-win, but one could argue that this is reflective of life itself. After all those with the most money often do find themselves in positions of power…

Depth and Complexity

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Game of War has a myriad of tech and research improvements, hero abilities, etc. It just goes to show the bewildering depth the game offers.

Whilst just scratching the surface of what these games have to offer, I hope the thing that becomes immediately apparent is just how deep these games are. In fact I would go as far as saying that a game like Starcraft on the PC is probably easier to understand than a game such as Game of War. The success of these titles shows that there is a real tangible market for games like this and that the mobile audience is becoming more game savvy. The current top 10 grossing games list ranges from super-deep and complex games such as GoW / Mobile Strike to super mass-market with Pokemon Go and Candy Crush Saga so it’s proof the audience has expanded to such a point that there are multiple ways to succeed.

I would also argue that one compelling reason to play a 4X game is that the level of mastery is such that players get a lot of enjoyment about sharing their knowledge with each other, tutoring newer players and trying to think of ways to min / max game systems to achieve an edge or advantage.

An Infinitely Scalable Economy

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It may sound like a first-world problem, but a genuine worry for developers for a live-service game is how to prevent players from completing and having access to everything. Once you’ve got everything you can lose motivation to play and pay which is bad for business and kills the motivation of others to play on.

In Game of War, persistent losses solves some of these problems as players can literally wipe out the progress of other players almost completely. However smart players will often not  attack other players who can do that to them, leading to players become pacifists with one another. The game does often run big events such as Kill-Events and Wonder battling to try and force players into losses, but it’s just one technique used.

A common way developers look to solve this is to introduce power creep by increasing numbers in the game. E.g. you can make more Stronghold levels, stronger gear, more levels, etc. What usually stops this from being a catch-all solution to all problems is that it requires more assets to be developed and broadens the gap between players at the start of the game and players at the end of the game. For example during one spell I played the game the top player world had around 2 Billion Power. These days that is small fry and I would have to do a lot of work to be competitive.

Game of War does solve these issues by scaling up their economy and power level but do so in a very clever way. The whole game and infrastructure has been made such that the live service is easy to operate and balance. The game is a thin-client meaning that it’s run entirely on the server so almost any device can connect to the game and meaning that new content and features can be rolled out very quickly without having to get players to upgrade their version. The game also appears to be made entirely in HTML5 which means that although the graphical fidelity may be lacking compared to some of it’s rivals, it’s super easy to make new content. The lack of graphics actually help the game in some ways as to make new items such as gear and tech upgrades does not take a lot of production time to do.

The lack of a battle game also helps here. As the game is purely a spreadsheet crunching numbers, new units and battle balance is super easy too do. The monetisation model of the game (which I till touch on later) also means that players can be offered tailored packages to boost them up in asymmetrical power levels, which is supported by the game economy and structure. Overall it’s very cleverly thought out offering both super deep sinks but also allowing for a lot of head room to keep pace with a ravenous and big spending audience.

Chat, Alliances, Social

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A fairly unique feature of Game of War is that chat is translated from other languages into the language the player is playing in.

Given that Machine Zone pivoted from a company making Social Networks to F2P games, their chat and social layer built into their game is second to none. During the game’s beta they introduced a real time chat translation tool that players were rewarded with virtual currency for to help complete. The end result is that when you play the game every single message from anywhere else in the world is translated into the language you are playing in. MZ realised that for a game that was built around being truly social, if you came into the game and saw a lot of talk in another language, it would act as a barrier to your enjoyment and understanding. Although the system is not perfect, being able to communicate to a decent degree of sophistication with anyone else in the world at any time makes the game feel alive.

Game of War also heavily leans in on Alliance Features and getting players into one as soon as possible. The game uses your location to try to find alliances that are within your geo / time zone so you will have an easier time finding friends to help you play the game. The game also pushes you into an Alliance very quickly – usually during the first session to build up the real support network of other players who can help you.

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Gifting to and from Alliance Members is a huge part of Game of War.

The game also has a “kick-back” system. If anyone in your Alliance buys an IAP bundle, everyone else in the Alliance gets something. Although this can lead to some players “riding the wave” for freebies, most Alliances are self-regulating so if you aren’t paying, you better be fulfilling another important role and be online a lot as Alliances can’t afford to carry dead weight. It also means that you are put under a certain pressure to spend to be seen to be contributing to an alliance. There is even the ability to purchase gifts for other players which ties in very nicely to the rest of the social framework the game creates.

The game also has an absolute ton of Alliance specific features that help build out the gameplay. With Alliance Cities, players have goals that the entire Alliance can work towards. Alliances can trade items and resources between each other. Alliances can directly message or private message one another to keep each other in the loop. The list just goes on and on and it makes the game super social and connects every player within the alliance to each other. If there is a game that has more features than Game of War, I am yet to find it.

Social and Emergent Gameplay

When you add up all of the features and frameworks that Game of War has you end up with a recipe for one of the killer reasons for it’s success. The game is incredibly social and as a result introduces a ton of emergent gameplay that the players themselves determine.

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The players of Game of War are effectively a social network with one hobby in common – the game. Dramas, friendships and stories are made every day.

As an example, Alliances often have differing roles between players. One may act as a banker to move currencies around the alliance to keep them safe. Some players may act as “farmers” who deliberately tune their economy to produce a ton of resources at the expense of military power to help fund the rest of the alliance. But doing so means that the rest of the alliance has to protect those players to keep their resources intact! Some players will act as scouts who find information out about the game world and report information back to the Alliance so that the alliance as a whole can organise their military maneuvers. Often times an Alliance will send out a decoy army so that they can issue a real attack against a completely different target.

As a result of all of this, gameplay can vary from kingdom-to-kingdom with a lot of the game actually becoming a meta-game of subterfuge, politics and planning. Some Kingdoms have NPA’s (non-aggression pacts) where players can’t attack each other or capture heroes. Break these rules and the top dogs in each Kingdom will send in their forces and wipe you out. Other Kingdoms are free-for-alls where anything goes and players can attack each other at will. Alliances leaders and lieutenants are thus in close contact with one another as often the enemy of your enemy can become your friend! There is also often drama when big personalities from big Alliances have a falling out and start their own Alliance and take some of the original alliance with them to create the equivalent of a civil war. It’s the closest you can get to living in a real life version of Game of Thrones.

Gabe Leydon has gone on record to say that the players in their game are the ones that really make the rules and even the gameplay, they just provide the infrastructure to do it, and I can totally believe this to be the case. Emergent gameplay comes from the decisions players themselves make, and if they decide in one kingdom that no one is allowed to capture heroes, then that’s how it will be, regardless of any incentive on offer to break the Kingdom rules!

Emergent Gameplay is a dream for any developer to achieve. It means that a game can become evergreen as players can literally play forever. Combined with an economic and power system that is literally infinitely scalable and it’s easy to see why Game of War has been a success for so long and why it can continue to be a success for many years to come. It’s real goal now is to keep the long-term invested players they have and to try and address the issue of new players being so far away from becoming competitive that they churn out and see a declining DAU.

Monetisation

 

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Spending in Game of War is handled almost in the same way that a Casino would. The game is always looking to move you up to the next tier of spending, and will give you better and better offers until you get there!

You can’t talk about Game of War without talking about it’s monetisation. Quite simply put there is no other game in the world that monetises better on a per user basis. In fact I would be shocked if the ARPDAU of the game is *less* than $1. Just look at this quote taken from an interview between Game of War Real Tips and Stayalive77, one of the top players in the game:

 

There is no doubt Stayalive spends a TON of money on Game of War. I asked if he has spent over a half a million, “ya ya, ya ya. It’s a very expensive game.”

Half.A.Million.Dollars. In a mobile game. Just let that settle in for a second to truly understand the scale of the economy and sinks in this game. That’s not even possible in 99% of games out there and testament to the design that a well built 4X game can achieve. And whilst it may well disgust you to think about that money being spent, remember that people can choose to spend money in the way they want to. For example, when if I go out with my friends in London for a really epic night such as someone’s birthday I might spend £200 (perhaps this is why I don’t get invited out too much 🙂 !). However, a celebrity like a footballer or movie star might spend something like £50K in an evening if they were really blowing off steam. And whilst that might sound outrageous to me, that is their prerogative and something you just have to accept in a capitalist system. And so you have to applaud Machine Zone for making a game where it’s even possible to motivate players to want spend that amount of money. If Game of War was a nightclub… there’d be a queue two miles long to get in!

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This is a bill for $170K for a single night out spent by NBA hall-of-famer Lebron James. I wished I was there!

I’m kind of surprised there aren’t more articles out there on the web that go into the monetisation strategy and design of Game of Way because it’s fairly unique and exceptionally well executed. Most games have flat price points that are balanced around a central economic constant such as time. For example if 10 Gems are worth 1 Minute in real game time, then you can use that as a basis to create curves to balance price points around to anchor players to certain packages. It’s a tried and trusted technique used in a multitude of games and one which Supercell absolutely nails. However, Game of War doesn’t use this approach at all.

In Game of War, players are bombarded with offers and bundles for a crazy number of items and resources. However, the genius here is that each offer is tailored to each unique customer via some very clever tech and surfacing. You see in Game of War, monetisation can be tough of as a “staircase” where the game wants you to keep moving upwards over time. Think about a Casino. They will often give you free chips, free drinks and food to make you feel welcome and happy. A casino wants you to be happy and wants you to be fun so that you will spend. Then once you spend, they want you to spend more! Did you just get a thrill out of winning $2K and then losing it all. Well how about the feeling of winning $4K at an even bigger table!?

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A comparison of the same offer viewed from different accounts taken from PunchAndPie’s Game of War blog.

 

Because the game economy is infinitely scalable, the game can offer you insane deals. This means that if you haven’t converted yet, the offers can go up and up until you do spend. Then cleverly once you have spent, that bundle and price point is removed. So once you have spent $4.99, you can never get a bundle for that price again, it will cost $9.99 instead, and so on and so forth. Once you’ve converted once you are comfortable at that spend level and it’s only a matter of time before you will want to spend again, which is now at an increased level. Take a look at this story  from Kotaku of someone spending almost $1m of stolen money in Game of War to understand just how skilfully this has been executed.

This goes further by targeting players based on circumstance. Haven’t played in 6 months? Then when you return you will be given a truly insane offer to get you right back into the game, which is clever because it’s better to get $2.99 from someone who would otherwise delete your game than no money from them at all. Or if you have just been zeroed by a colossal attack, you can might be offered the gear or items to launch a killer counter punch which you will be highly motivated to do.

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Game of War has a casino-game style VIP system to encourage you to keep spending lots of money.

On top of this the game also has a killer VIP system which is derived from Casino and other real-money based games and encourages the player to keep spending. Not only can you become a VIP but you can climb the ranks of the VIP tier system to keep progressing and to keep getting even larger and more powerful boosts. On top of this, you are given VIP status and it makes you look like a true killer in a sea of players on the world map. And in a game that is all about power and the social status that comes with that power, makes you a hot shot! It even gives you access to several convenience features such as the ability to fast open all chests or to fast combine all pieces of gear. These are things that once you have the power to do are very frustrating to lose hold of and it’s very interesting from a UX perspective that MZ chose to sell these as perks instead of making it part of the regular flow.

The Future of Midcore

One thing that I love about the mobile market is that it’s still a puzzle that we game makers need to figure out. Just look at the following for diversity in the marketplace:

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Taken the day before Super Mario Run is released, here is a look at the top 10 grossing games in the USA.

Whilst a number of these titles have been around for a long time, there is diversity among the gameplay types represented. We have casual puzzle games with Candy Crush, a smash hit IP game with Pokemon, Build and Battle with Clash of Clans, 4X Games with Game of War / Mobile Strike and Clash Royale represents Synchronous Battle gaming. That’s a lot of different genres appealing to many different target demographics! I think this means that there is plenty of room for both innovation and evolution in the market and both Pokemon Go and Clash Royale are games that are new this year.

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The top grossing game in China is the NetEase MMO Fantasy Westward Journey. Each piece of text in the main screen is a real person and their game character.

So what is next? Well Machine Zone have recently announced a collaboration with Square Enix based on the world of Final Fantasy XV which will be a mobile MMO. Whilst the safe money would be on this being another reskin of Game of War with the Final Fantasy licence, I’m not so sure this will be the case. Looking at markets around the world we can see that in China the top grossing game (in fact both #1 and #2) are an MMO – Fantasy Westward Journey. Originally released in 2001 as a PC game, it’s mobile port makes as much as $7m a day. Whilst Chinese culture is totally different to the western culture, MMO’s have been popular in the past, with Everquest and World of Warcraft being great examples. If Game of War has taught us anything it’s that players ARE willing to spend long periods of time on their mobile device so who’s to say that a “true” MMO and not just a 4X game would not succeed? I personally believe that at some point in time a mobile MMO with town style lobbies and 3D player avatars ala World of Warcraft will eventually be a hit at some point. Someone just has to build it and get the users in first.

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Empire: War of Heroes by Feelingtouch is an example of a “5X” game. It has a strategical battle game as opposed to just a report on top of the usual 4X game elements.

A more likely candidate though is something I cam going to coin as a “5x” game. With the 5th “X” standing for “eXcite.” Currently successful mobile 4X games do not have a battle game, but this could be something that to add into the game with some developers already trying the concept. My personal feeling is that given the complexity of these games adding it to a session is just one step too far, but an IP can be a big draw and I could see a MZ / Square Enix style 5X game cleaning up in both the east and west if done right.

This makes me want to make a quick detour for something that is important in mobile gaming – session design. Machine Zone have gone on record to say that they have seen players sit through long sessions playing their games, and it’s something I have seen across multiple different games myself. However, I think the best mobile games till push you through their core loops quickly, but make sessions so addictive you want to do it more than once. For example in Game of War to come in and set up the next set of actions you need to complete takes no time at all allowing for a short bite-sized session. The longer play habit is also available but it’s not core to playing the game and hence why adding a battle could be problematic. Likewise Clash Royale has no restrictions at all for playing the game endlessly, but using it’s genius Chest Unlock system and making sure that each game takes a maximum of 3 minutes means that it’s still super easy to have a sort but meaningful game session that brings you back.

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Hot on the heels of Clash Royale’s success is Star Wars: Force Arena from Netmarble, a Clash Royale / MOBA hybrid. 2015’s VainGlory is also still around arguably still ahead of its time and Super Soldiers by BoomLagoon may be the first of a push from World of Tanks Developer Wargaming.net

Ironically the one game that I personally love that breaks this rule and gets away with it is Hearthstone by Blizzard. Games usually take between 5-10 minutes but can take a lot longer (anything up to 30 minutes). Yet because the core game is so much fun, it just about gets away with it. However, games such as Vainglory also have longer sessions and have not been successful so there’s a very fine margin of error here!

It’s also worth mentioning Synchronous Battle Games as a “new” type of genre that is fast gaining traction in mid-core. A number of developers have tried to chase the MOBA crowd onto mobile but most thought it was not possible until Clash Royale exploded onto our screens earlier in the year in an incredible game that has set the charts alight. Hot on it’s heels are a number of games that are getting more and more hardcore and I am sure at least one breakout title will appear next year with Synchronous gameplay. With rising user acquisition costs and a few key companies monopolizing the market, the “word-of-mouth” factor is huge and it’s something that I feel games with eSports potential can cover. Supercell are putting a lot of effort into coverage of Clash Royale and 30 of the top 100 games in China are eSports style games. This is not yet as red an ocean as traditional midcore but it will definitely be a big battleground in the next 1-3 years!

Wrapping Up

Mobile 4X games have shown us that complex games with super deep mechanics that are intrinsically social can win big on mobile. Despite being very scary to begin with and almost inaccessible, these games can get players to stick for a very long period of time. In fact it shocks me that there isn’t a version of the game that broadens the funnel right out and rethinks the accessibility of the early game because clearly as of here and now 4x gameplay mechanics are popular to a small but heavily monetisable audience.

As for what’s next, whilst there will be a whole host of copycat games in the 4X space, it is getting harder and harder to fight against Machine Zone in this space. Their technology, userbase and expertise in the area mean that you are fighting a hard battle to take share away from them, especially with CPI’s too acquire these players going through the roof! As a result I think games by smaller teams with a heavier emphasis on core gameplay will become more and more popular as these games are easier to develop and have a better word of mouth potential to grow over time. It won’t stop some from trying though and I can see 4X games becoming even more hardcore and some concepts from the East such as featuring realtime 3D lobbies becoming a thing for at least one or two titles over time. Maybe if Blizzard made a mobile MMO we would see the start?

Finally, below is a video given by the CEO of Machine Zone Gabe Leydon in 2013 just as the game was launching. It’s a great watch to get a quick insight into how the game was made and why, and proved to be a great piece of research for this article.

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