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!


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.


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.