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A Casual, Cornered: How Is Game of War Such a Mobile Hit?

By Beau Hindman on January 20, 2015 | Columns | Comments

How Is Game of War Such a Mobile Hit?

I’m sure you have seen the commercials for Game of War, the hugely successful city-builder by developer Machine Zone. There’s Kate Upton, world-renowned supermodel, asking “Will you be my hero?” You might have seen another commercial that shows her asking “So tell, me, do you want to come and play?” after a relatively impressive battle of armies (without any other woman in sight, by the way.) That one aired during a football game.

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Yes, the acting is horrible. And, yes, the reason they hired her to be in the commercials should be obvious. I have no issues with her decision to be in these commercials; if I were a beautiful young person I would probably be in commercials as well.

Unfortunately, the blatant sexism in the series of commercials is a sad reminder of game advertising at its worst, and it’s completely unnecessary on top of that. While some might argue that players grab the game because of Kate Upton, I argue that more grab the game simply because it’s advertised on TV and can be played on a tablet or smartphone, devices within reach. Just ask Clash of Clans, a game that does not use supermodels in their advertisements and, yet, makes the same handfuls of cash. But let’s set that to the side for a moment. Just for now – for the duration of this article – let’s set aside how ridiculous the commercials are.

Anyway, if you fancy yourself as a gamer and as someone who likes to explore games, you have to explore games, even if their ads make you uncomfortable. That means if you hear about a title and do not download it and explore it, there’s always a possibility that you might not know what you are talking about when you do talk about it.

So, as I do with almost any game that I hear about, I got it. Specifically, I downloaded it on my older Android tablet, an 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and to my Apple iPad Air.

To be honest, the game isn’t bad at all. Sure, if you are used to games like Game of War you will not be surprised much. But, as I said to my wife when we finished watching the third and final installment of the Hobbit movies, “It would have been incredible if I were 14 years old.” That’s not a joke and not meant as an insult. If I were still 14 years old or had the limited gaming experience of some 14 year olds, Game of War could be the coolest thing I have ever seen. (And the Hobbit movies would have been amazing. All I had around that age were movies like The Goonies.)

The game is an MMORTS, meaning a massively multiplayer online real time strategy game. Basically this means that you will spend time levelling buildings, raising armies and possibly attacking other players. It’s a very, very popular category, boasting some of the largest successes on the mobile markets right now. The company that makes Game of War was just valued at a few billion dollars. Yes, billion.

The category is popular for a few reasons.

First, an MMORTS doesn’t have to boast the best graphics around. This makes them cheaper to create. Cities and armies are represented on the map with animated icons, not normally detailed in full three dimensions.

Second, the mechanics in many of the MMORTS’ or pseudo-MMORTS’ are well-used, tested and appeal to time-strapped players. If you want to kill an entire evening inside one of these army-builders, you can. There are always other players on to befriend or beenemy, and alliances or clans are great ways to team up with others. Or, if you are one of those players who can squeeze in some play only during important work meetings, you could probably survive in-game just fine. Most of the titles do not truly punish players by allowing “perma-destruction” or any serious consequences to combat.

Third, this is a genre that is very easy to monetize. Developers are particularly skilled at getting their MMORTS players to pay for all types of services. Many of these services are basic and not seen as “selling power”, services like speed-ups for long builds, extra build queue slots or perhaps slight army buffs like 15% speed or damage multipliers.

Machine Head pursues monetization at every chance, but the offers rarely get in the way of gameplay. The offers are often quite varied, as well, something that allows players to get everything they need if they want to pay for it. Strangely, though, some of the offers change rapidly at the top of the screen. At one moment the bar might flash “7850% more, 3,900 gold, $19.99” and then – only a few seconds later – will change to “9790% more, 5,000 gold, $4.99.” Is the idea that players will be “tricked” into buying the package for the lower price, because it is being flashed with higher-priced offers that seem to be a yuckier deal?

The differences in the numbers appear to come from the details of the offers; some of them offer additional gold or items along with the purchase. It’s legit, but just feels like a silly way to do it. I can picture the company’s “numbers guy” sitting with a small group of social scientists, designing the best way to get people to spend cash.

Fourth, there are many, many opportunities to play with other people in an app like Game of War. The game features an “auto-translator” that aids in communication with players from all over the world. It allows players to fight on one continuous server because, as the developers found, mobile players tend to use correct spelling thanks to auto-correct. That means that translations come across more accurately, so communication with other people is easy, even if they do not speak your language.

Fifth, the game is easy. Finding an alliance is fast. The game features a “help” system that lets fellow alliance mates aid with longer build times, and alliance “gifting” means that when you purchase a pack of gold or items, your alliance also obtains a few goodies. The whole thing is engineered to make players want to spend money, share in the shinies, and to watch out for each other. With the communication tools, it’s easy to see why Game of War has grabbed top rankings in app stores.

Last but not least, the game is mobile. That means you can play it while following your wife around as she shops for nail polish. Awesome.

Now, if we can convince the developers to do away with those ridiculous Kate Upton ads, we might be on to something!

Beau Hindman / Beau is a writer, artist, PR/CM, game designer and pro moderator, and he's been blogging since 2002. He lives it up in Austin, Texas with his community manager wife. He's also the author of Anna the Powerful, a sci-fi book about the world's only superhero. Buy it here: http://my.bookbaby.com/book/anna-the-powerful