06 August 2015

Game of War

Game of War is a mobile game currently making $1.2M/day and having 2.2M daily active users. Its developer, Machine Zone, is valued at $3 billion (while Zynga is valued at $2.7 billion and Supercell at $5.5 billion.).

The game is quite high up the charts of the App Store, only surpassed by Clash of Clans' $1.7M/day and 4M daily active users and probably Candy Crush as well. CoC and GoW are similar in that they are both free-to-play empire-builder war games for mobile. Whereas I find CoC to be a polished game with elegant mechanics, Game of War is said to be everything wrong with mobile monetization. Let's have a look!

Copycats

In an interview in 2012, Gabriel Leydon, Machine Zone's CEO, said they are making games that are very, very special and unique in the market. But in the same interview, he also said If you want to scale fast and you have the ability to do it cheaply, you just clone. With GoW, they did not go the special/unique route: they cloned 99.9% of their gameplay and UI from Kabam's The Hobbit (which launched for mobile in October 2012). Shameless cloning is a common practice among mobile games, and The Hobbit itself had cloned a lot of its gameplay and UI from Evony (a Flash game from 2009), which itself had cloned most of its gameplay from Civilization.

Going back to GoW, the trailer features a battle in real time scene that actually never happens in the game. In the game, the player can see their armies move in real time, but when battles happen, the player only sees a report of the troops expended and resources gained. No visual battling actually happens. So the game launched with a lot of hype and exaggeration. Since it's a clone of The Hobbit, the marketing team had to exaggerate to compete.

Translation vs innovation

When GoW launched in July 2013, Venturebeat wrote they were using advanced technology, including a real-time translation engine, a sophisticated communications platform where players can send threaded emails, text chat, make comments, and share their feats on social forums. There really is nothing new or sophisticated with in-game emails. The translator, however, is GoW's unique attribute, what the game is known for. How good and useful is that famous translator?

When typing on the miniature keyboard of their iPhone, people use slang and make spelling mistakes. So the translator has to crowd-source a lot of sentences to players. For example, let's say a French player says "lu, a va bi1?". To translate this for American players, I think the sentence is first automatically-translated into English, leaving non-translatable words untouched: "read, have go bi1?". This gibberish is then given without context to 4 players who are told they'll receive in-game currency if they can fix the sentence. The first player fixes the sentence into "I read you, I have to go", the second suggests "Read (what I wrote above), I have to go and buy one", and so on. A fifth player receives the four tweaked sentences and is awarded some in-game currency for picking the sentence he thinks makes most sense. The player who wrote the chosen sentence receives coins, whereas the other three receive a thank you message with no reward.

This sounds like a good idea, but there's a reason why after all these years Google Translate still sucks, and why translator is still a job. "lu, a va bi1?" in proper French is "Salut, ça va bien?", which Google can translate easily to "Hi, how are you doing?". But most French players can write "hello" by themselves. In Kings of the Realm, a game very similar to GoW, I've seen many American players write to Russian players in Russian. In Hearthstone, the game has 6 emotes (for "hello", "well played", and so on), and needs no translation system whatsoever. Did GoW focus on and boast its (mediocre) chat translator at launch because it was the only thing that differentiated it from The Hobbit?

Cash grab

MachineZone was actually called Addmired when it started. They were developing dating apps. Maybe the name made sense at the time, but even for a dating app, it's a terrible name: are users going to get mired in ads? That no founder flagged the name as inappropriate tells a lot about the company's business model.

GoW reminds players that they can spend money every time they login. The first screen showed when logging in is the one below. The font is inelegant, reminiscent of Asian mobile games like Puzzle and Dragons. The fireworks at the bottom obstruct one of the products offered in the bundle. The bundle name is "Summer MEGA GOLD Sale!!!". And a timer of 30 minutes pretends that the sale will end within 30 minutes. In fact, the player only needs to log back in to get spammed by the sale again...

In Clash of Clans, no upgrade takes longer than 14 days. The game provides 5 builders, so the most intense players have something to upgrade roughly twice a week. In GoW, the longest upgrade times is 23 years. Nobody would wait 23 years for an upgrade to finish! The designers do not expect players to wait 23 years. Everybody understands that year-long waiting times are here only to make players skip them with money. No surprise that some players report having spent $9,000 in the game. A kid in Belgium even spent $46,000.

Sexy advertising

GoW spent $40M to run an ad where model Kate Upton shows her cleavage during the Superbowl. Some people were outraged, but this advertising strategy was already used heavily in 2009 by Evony. Using sex in ads is not new, but that does not excuse it. It's interesting that a company valued at $3 billion has only one product, and the content of and advertising for that product were both 99.9%-copied from another company's product. In contrast, Clash of Clans' core gameplay may not be original but the ad they ran during the Superbowl was funny, silly, and just more elegant.

In fact, GoW's ads could be worse. For example, Evony's advertising strategy was much more questionable than GoW's. Through iEvony, they rewarded players with game coins when they referred a friend or when a friend they referred purchased game coins with real money. In order to bootstrap the pyramid scheme, iEvony was invite-only. Evony also used any search-engine optimization trick they could, stole ad photos and game art, and showed soft-porn images that have nothing to do with the game. So GoW still has some way to go!

Why do GoW (and CoC) use ads? After all, they have so many players already that word-of-mouth should bring them more. In practice, only a small percentage of new players will keep playing the game past the one-week mark. An even smaller number will spend money. Thus these games aim at attracting as many players as possible, so as to increase the number of spenders. But there will come a time when there will be no more new players to draw to the game. But since 2013, the cost for attracting new players outweighs the average amount spent by players ($2.73 vs $1.96). Since players get tired of games eventually, these greedy business models are unsustainable.

Conclusion

GoW is an over-the-top cash grab using sex [ads] to fuel a game where sex really isn’t a factor. The game has a terrible UI plagiarized from another game, and a horrible gameplay also plagiarized from others. This is the kind of game that gives a bad name to free-to-play mobile gaming. I'm disappointed that millions of players follow the ads and don't see that it is so crappy.

14 March 2015

Samurai Jack stories

1: Haku was sealed by Jack's father, but returns when Jack is a kid. Jack's father is taken by Haku, but his mother and himself escape with the only sword harmful to Haku. Jack's mother sends Jack to hone his combat skills with tribes all around the world. She keeps the sword until Jack returns as a man.

2: Haku sends Jack to the future to avoid losing the fight. Jack lands in an ultra modern city. He enters a bar full of thugs, and meets archeologist talking dogs who explain that Haku has enslaved many worlds. Jack accepts to free their people from Haku.

3: Haku sends a thousand robot beetles against the dogs. Jack organizes their defense (traps, tools), and defeats all the robots by himself while the dogs are watching.

4: In the jungle, small blue guys tell Jack that the big elephant-like creatures they are using are dangerous, and should be punished. A priest of the elephants explains to Jack that the elephants have actually been enslaved by the small blue guys. Jack breaks the orb used to enslave the elephants.

5: In a pine forest, Jack meets the human scientists who designed Haku's beetle robots. They are good guys, and want to escape to the past in a spaceship. They build a jet-pack and cosmonaut suit for Jack. In space, Jack protects them from Haku's wasp-like robots, but realizes that by doing so, he will miss the time travel.

6. Mysterious female warrior comes to help Jack. She needs a jewel to free her Dad, captured by Haku. Jack could use the jewel to go back in time. They collaborate, save each other, flirt. When they find the jewel, she breaks it and Jack realizes she was Haku.

7. Magic well giving one wish is protected by 3 archers. Jack realizes they are blind but perfectly accurate because they use the noise made by people when they walk in the snow. Jack wears a blindfold and sees the world like them, through noises. He beats them, but the well is cursed, so Jack destroys it.

8. Jack is mad because bounty hunters keep harassing him. Haku uses Jack's anger to create an evil clone of him. Jack beats the evil clone by doing yoga to calm himself down, thereby absorbing him.

9. Submarine city said to have a time machine. Inhabitants are slave of Haku, want to give Jack to Haku to gain freedom. Haku breaks his promise, so they regret giving Jack, and help him fight Haku. After Jack frees them, they explain the machine rumor was a lure.

10. Jack called by a voice to a mountain core. At the core, lava golem = warrior trapped in stone by Haku. Only way to free him: Jack kills him after a fair fight so he joins Valhalla.

11. Shaky, ridiculously long bridge. Jack meets with Scotsman in the middle after 2 days walking on it. Arrogant Scotsman demands that Jack backs up, because he has bounty on his head. Jack refuses, Scotsman trolls with bagpipe, they fight for 2 days. Bounty hunters show up for them both, so they fight together and become friends.

12. Capone-like gangsters from the 20s want to steal magic Water Jewel and gift it to Haku. Jack seizes the opportunity to meet with Haku and teams up with gangsters. Jewel protected by fire, wind, and earth guardians. Jack beats them by making them mix. When Jack meets Haku, gangsters knock him on the head before he can attack Haku.

13. Haku wants to improve his propaganda. Goes to school, tells kids classic tales like Red Riding Hood or 3 pigs, in which Jack is the bad guy. Kids deny them.

14. Jack teaches a jungle tribe to defend itself against evil gorillas. They teach him to "jump good" by attaching weights to him. When they remove the weights, he jumps above trees.

15. 3 tales. 1) Jack is lost. Giant double-headed magic worm says: "One of my head always says the truth, the other always lies. Solve enigma and we show you the path". Jack solves, but the worm eats him anyway. 2) Robot family, want to eat everything, but prefer metal (Jack's sword). When Jack rips one apart, they realize they are made of metal, and eat each other up. 3) Wish fairy protected by gargoyle. Jack frees her but his hand gets locked with hers. Gargoyle wakes up, Jack kills it, gargoyle laughs because only he knew the magic word to remove the manacles. Jack has no other choice but to say "I wish we were free".

16. Jack captured, gladiator for the Dome of Doom. Beats his opponents, asks for everyone to be free.

17. Scotsman's wife kidnapped. Jack and Scott rescue her, but are overwhelmed by the robots. Master of robots calls her fat, she goes berserk and kills everything.

18. Scientist makes 8 robots, trains them to kill Jack, powers them through Haku. Haku tells them to destroy scientist's city, so scientist gives Jack a power gauntlet to kill the robots. Jack kills 7/8, but then gauntlet runs out of power. Jack prays and gains power.

19. Jack visits his old city in ruins. Visions of the past. No action.

20. Jack is hopeless. 3 monks tell him to go to top of a very high mountain. Near the summit, Jack is about to abandon, but realizes he has to go on. He makes it to the top, and regains confidence in his quest.

21.Medieval village tormented by periodic stench. Jack realizes stench comes from dragon farts, goes inside dragon bowels, finds out baby dragon is spitting fire inside.

22. Haku asks 4 legendary hunters to capture Jack. They manage it, but Jack was their best hunt ever, so they grant him freedom instead.

23. Demon, minion of Haku, steals warrior souls and spawns them at will. Jack beats the souls, but the demon keeps spawning them. Only solution: Jack goes inside the demon and frees the souls.

24. Alice in Wonderland-like world. Jack takes a bath, gets his sword stolen by a white rabbit. Jack runs after white rabbit throughout the town, finds out it's only a girl with white-rabbit-looking backpack. She wanted to sell sword for money.

25. 300-like episode. Spartans fight against massive army. Jack shows them secret path to mastermind's citadel, they beat the boss, end of war.

26. Transformers-like robots/motorcycles break Jack's wooden sandals. He tries tennis shoes, heels, goth spiky black shoes, but he has problems with all of them when he tries to beat the robots. He has wooden sandals made in Asian shop, and beats them.

27. Jack stumbles into grumpy wizard in the street. Wizard turns him into a chicken. Jack gets captured, and his master enrolls him into underground coq fights against toxic critters and mini robots. One day, master and Jack walk in the street, master bumps into the wizard. Master turned into chicken, Jack back to human.

28. Graveyard, Haku-controlled zombies, and banshee. Banshee gets control of the sword, Haku appears, stabs Jack with it, but fails: the sword can only do good.

29. Techno music coming from the woods mesmerizes village kids. Jack discovers evil DJ plays Haku songs, defeats him, and frees kids.

30. A Western of robots. Big strong cowboy and his Cancan wife team up to capture Jack. They nearly succeed, but she ends up betraying her husband, and Jack beats both.

31. Haku awakens the 3 minions of Seth. To beat them, need to assemble together 3 pieces of scarab. While pursued by the minions, Jack finds the scarabs and summons Thot, who kills the minions.

32. Magic lake where people can't swim, only sink. Loch Ness monster transports Jack to the island. Series of monsters transport Jack until a time-travel portal. A buffed human guardian protects the portal, awaiting the Chosen One. The guardian wins because the Chosen One is not Jack right now, but Jack in the future.

33. Big, goofy, and peaceful creature follows Jack. When Jack finds time travel jewel, the creature eats it. Jack is furious, but creature still follows. 4 robots come and beat Jack. The creature goes berserk, transforms into something horrible, and kills the robots.

34. Haku disguised as hermit asks Jack for the 3 gems of Chronos, ie the power to travel in time. One temple for each gem. When Jack picks the first gem from its pedestal, water floods the room from a small orifice. Solution: use gem to plug the orifice. Second temple is wind-based. Third gem is inside a glass greenhouse that only opens at sunrise. Soon, the sun rays go through the glass and threaten to burn Jack. Solution: use gem to deflect sun rays and break the glass.

35. Spooky mansion. Jack gets flashes of the past: a dragon/wolf demon possessed ate the soul of the house's inhabitants. The demon eats Jack's soul too, but Jack beats him inside. Very few words are spoken.

36. Giant spiral tower has time travel portal on the top. Jack goes with 2 Shaolin monk friends. Thousands of stone warriors attack them on the way. When they find the portal, the monks are outnumbered and tell Jack to go, but he can't let them die. The portal disappears.

37. Jack wants to steal the jewel inside a pyramid filled with traps. Another thief, using spy tools, enters the pyramid at the same time. They go their own ways, pass similar traps in different ways. When they pick the jewel, robots appear, they are outnumbered, the thief leaves Jack behind, but regrets, goes back, and saves him. Outside, they argue so much over the jewel that they break it.

38. Haku hires ninja. Ninja lures Jack inside a hollow tower filled with wooden planks. Ninja hides in the shade of the planks, Jack hides in the light. All is black or white. As the sun sets, Jack loses ground. Solution: Jack blinds ninja with his sword and kill him by throwing his sword at him.

39. Mondobot, a 100 meter-tall robot, used to protect a city of robots. After it started to attack the city, the citizens tell Jack to find a legendary Power Ranger-like megabot hidden underwater. Jack goes inside, becomes the megabot. Mondobot fires guns at megabot, useless. They sword-fight until both swords break. Then fist fight, Jack wins.

40. Inn. Funky groovy Black guy says he is the real Jack. He duels Jack, they go outside, Jack asks to use bamboo swords, Jack wins. Haku robots show up, Jack kills them. They re-assemble behind Jack's back, the impostor sees it and warns Jack, who kills them again, and thanks the impostor.

41 and 42. Haku's origins. 3 original gods fought evil in space, but did not clean well. Tiny part falls on Earth, a big black pool of goo, passive but evil. Brave Asian emperor uses magic potion to clean the pool, but it only transforms into Haku. The gods send a horse to ride the emperor to a magic forge. At the forge, they make a sword able to kill Haku, and banish Haku in the ground.

43 and 44. Scotsman on a steamboat meets a waiter who looks like Jack, but denies he is Jack. To make him remember, he makes the lookalike fight bounty hunters, but he is weak and loses. Scotsman abandons, until singing sirens lure the ship, its crew, and Jack to their island. They hypnotize everyone. Scotsman on the ship is immune, says "his wife sings better", and plays the bagpipe to wake up everyone, including Jack.

45. Haku was sick, and unknowingly gave Jack his virus. Jack becomes angry and evil, and is neutralized by monks. While locked at the monastery, he fights Haku inside himself.

46. 5 bounty hunters, with their own idiosyncrasies, gather at a place rumored to have Jack. They team up and make a complex plan to ambush him. When Jack shows up, Jack is too fast/strong and ruins all parts of their plans.

47. Aliens land on Earth, need their ship fixed. Haku captures them while Jack was watching. Jack frees them.

48. Haku asks for a duel against Jack without his sword. Jack agrees only if 1) no shape shifting, 2) no minions, 3) no super power. Jack beats Haku, so Haku cheats and changes shape. Jack goes to pick up his sword, but a minion grabs it before him. Jack knew Haku would cheat, so he hid thousands of copies of his sword around. Haku loses his temper and leaves.

49. Summer: Jack hallucinates in the desert heat, fights shadows, gets tired. He concentrates on his qi and finds a real oasis. Fall: mad scientist makes potion to kill Jack, pours it into a well. Jack shows up, cautious, but only pretends to drink. Mad scientist does not understand, drinks, and dies. Winter: grim blacksmiths forge epic sword in a long process, and give it to their champion to beat Jack. First hit, Jack cuts the sword in two. Spring: a spirit lulls Jack to rest and sleep. He agrees, but keeps thinking of Haku. The spirit tries to force him to stay, Jack fights and beats it.

50. Robot with emotion chip, in love with his dog "Loulou, sweet thing". Haku kidnaps the dog, forces robot to attack Jack. He gets beaten by Jack, but asks him to take care of Loulou.

51. Jack as a child, sent to an African tribe to learn their martial arts. Makes friend with chief's child. One day, villagers imprisoned by evil men paid by Haku. Jack learns how their weird weapon works, and frees the villagers. Then the villagers beat the evil men.

52. Jack finds a baby without his mother. Baby whines, so Jack has to find milk, cure the kid, and fight off trolls who want to eat it. The baby's eyes see everything. When the mother comes, the baby has Jack's serious look on his face.