How Head of State went from Passion Project to Top-10 Download

  Head of State is on iOS (here) and Android (here).

The Big Idea

I started working in the games industry at a small studio in Paris called Kobojo in 2011. We were making Facebook simulations that were moderately successful, but a far cry from the games that I enjoyed playing myself. Even so, I loved it. Finally hours of playing games from childhood onwards felt justified(!); the process of designing enjoyable experiences was itself hugely satisfying, and the sense of potential was intoxicating. Zynga was a tech industry darling, with Cityville breaking record after record, just as the portents began signalling an even bigger shift to mobile.

Politically though, the times were much less rosy: the far right was growing in popularity across Europe and the US, whilst in Greece Golden Dawn regularly made the headlines showing how fast the slide into neo-fascism could be. I found the politics confusing – I had grown up in the 90s and just about remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought this was meant to be the End of History and liberal democracy the natural order of things. It was fast becoming apparent that this wasn’t the case, that political entropy did not drag us inexorably towards peace and understanding.

So it was that I had the very first thoughts about the game that would become Head of State. I dreamed of a game that pushed the boundaries of games as a medium (of course!), whilst simultaneously addressing my pet fear of democratic collapse. The aspiration would be to contribute to the ongoing debate on democracy, just as Orwell and Huxley had with Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.

Today we haven’t stopped reading novels, but we have started playing a lot more games, and some of those games have touched just as serious ground. BioShock is a personal favourite – I must have played it through 4 or 5 times. Far from impeding enjoyment of the game, its rich setting drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was loved by critics and the game was a commercial success as well. I myself went on to read both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in between replays… whilst the success of TV shows like The West Wing and House of Cards further convinced me that politics was far from a niche interest. However, it was to be four years before the game was anything more than passing fantasy.

A Game is Born

Whilst I loved the concept of Head of State, I had no idea of how the game would actually play. Partly I had had no inspiration for mechanics that would work for the subject matter, and partly I wasn’t trying very hard as I didn’t see how the game might ever get made. It was clear that none of the companies I worked for would ever be interested in the idea. So the concept sat at the back of my mind gathering dust, and only occasionally embellished when I’d had a few drinks and gave an impromptu rant to friends about games or politics.

Then last year, following the encouragement of several friends and developers at Wooga, I started playing around with Unity and built a couple of playable prototypes for other ideas. They were the creative equivalents of a 3-year old’s macaroni collage, but I found coding addictive and my learning trajectory was steep. You Only Live Once was a (very) dark, text based version of the Sims, which I actually pushed to the App Store, just to see if I could. Hardly anyone played it, but it made me realise that publishing a game by myself was possible. At the same time I decided to leave Wooga, frustrated with a number of projects that had been cancelled before launch. With the games industry becoming increasingly tough I didn’t see better prospects anywhere else, so I jumped into e-commerce, but I decided that my swan song to the games industry would be publishing this political game I always dreamed of in some format.

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As I said my goodbyes at Wooga and prepared for an extended break over Christmas and New Year I had a brainwave about how the game might look. I had realised from my growing coding experience that simple simulation games were within my powers, and in particular had spent a lot of time playing both Plague Inc. and A Dark Room. I initially envisaged the game as an incremental similar to A Dark Room where new options opened up to the player as their political influence expanded. One of the key themes I wanted to explore in the game was leading people down an increasingly dark path to more extreme policies and actions, even if they started from relatively pure intentions.

I cobbled something together in a few days, all ugly pastel buttons, stats and the occasional progress bar to look at. I was fairly happy with the results myself, even if it was incredibly simplistic, just because I had managed to match some mechanics to the theme. But when I showed it to my family, they hated it. No one wanted to play the bad guy, the evil dictator with a plan to subvert a nation. They all far too nice for that and wanted to rule the country as well as possible, eradicating poverty and ensuring proper governance. Unless I could make the game fun, it was clear that the audience would be limited at best.

Putting the Fun into Evil

Still, I wasn’t going to be put off too easily, so I reached out to a couple of friends from Wooga – Rebecca Harwick, an American writer, and Ewa Chrusciel, a Polish artist. I had worked with both and knew them to be exceptionally talented, but I also suspected given Trump’s rise in the US and the growing discomfort of liberals with the Law & Justice party in Poland, that they would be interested in the theme (one of the benefits of living in Berlin is that most people are very liberal and relatively politically active). I asked them not whether they liked the game as it was, but whether they could see the potential, and were interested in fulfilling as much of that potential as possible. They both signed up immediately and we began meeting regularly, with the aim of launching a free game as a passion project in around three months.

The design evolved rapidly with the experienced feedback from Rebecca and Ewa. At the same time, the addition of a writer and artist supercharged the project’s skillsets, vastly expanding the creative possibilities for the game. We quickly divided the tech tree into Policies to allow the game to cover revolutions of all colors and not just the descent into facism. We also built out Control factions to reflect the importance of other state institutions, oblivious that over the summer Turkey’s coup would justify our decision to keep the Army and Police separate. The game also dragged towards the end, and I’ve never been a fan of fast forward options, so we added Momentum and the Revolution mechanic to bring things to a climax. Meanwhile, Ewa started working on more visual ways of showing the mechanics, whilst Rebecca worked on events and decisions that we wanted to include.

By March the game had come on leaps and bounds, and was unrecognisable from its initial incarnation. At the same time, we began to realise that we were only just getting started on the changes that we wanted to make, and had already used up the time we initially set aside. The process was fun though, and the team dynamics were working well, so we agreed to continue iterating on the design and push it further. We started play testing, and again got feedback that the game felt too dry, more political statement than game. We knew adding humour was the solution, but struggled to find a tone that was the right mix of enjoyable without being superficial.

After several discussions and exploring different styles we found an irreverent sarcasm that seemed to fit the bill, and we spread it generously all over the game. Meanwhile, as we dug deeper into the mechanics, I also picked up a renewed appreciation for why so many things in Plague Inc. are designed the way they are – we added a map and then pins for Influence, Events and Protests to give the player more to do.

Summer meant various holidays and other commitments for everyone, but the game was looking far better than I could have ever imagined. We decided to charge $1.99 for the game as we felt the quality would be high enough, and anyone interested in a political simulation game wasn’t likely to baulk at the price. Trump had already clinched the Republican nomination and then Brexit happened, and we were reinvigorated with the need to launch the game as soon as possible. July was a blur of polishing and testing, putting together marketing materials and grabbing lunches with anyone we knew in PR or App Store optimization. Finally, we set a launch date for August 7th and arranged a small BBQ for friends and family to celebrate all our hard work over the past months.

With the icons ready and App Store description written, I couldn’t wait to see the game go live. I called Tom Kinniburgh, a friend in the publishing industry excited to push the button, when he bluntly informed me that proper launch prep for any chance of featuring would take 5-6 weeks, rather than 10 days. It was a frustrating moment, and I considered pushing ahead regardless – we thought our chances of getting featured given the political theme were only 20% or so, and knew that the game wouldn’t capture the zeitgeist forever. Every day seemed to count and we had already been working on the game twice as long as we had initially expected.

Patience Pays Off

Fortunately Tom was quick to talk me out of rushing the launch, and we picked a new release date of September 8th. With development finished we focused on launch PR, reaching out to as many journalists as we could think of, calling in favours from anyone remotely involved in the media, and sending out a barrage of speculative tweets. We set up a thread in the TouchArcade forums and sent very polite yet enthusiastic emails to Apple and Google.

At last, launch day arrived. Nervously we checked and rechecked the App Store to see if we were lucky enough to get any featuring. We had not had art requests for banners, but hung out for a minor feature somewhere. Then finally, around 5pm, we noticed the UK store features had been updated, and Head of State was included in the “New Games We Love” section at position 14. A few hours later we realised we were also hidden in the simulation games features in the US. The next day we started climbing the charts, appearing first in top paid apps (UK) at 41, then climbing all the way to 5 in paid games, and number 1 in paid RPGs in the UK and number 9 in paid RPGs in the US.

         

Now, the game is less than week old, but by time of going to press (3 days of data) we’ve seen over 3.6k downloads and over $7.8k in revenue, with an average rating of about 4.5 stars in both the US and UK (we never localised the game). We’ll see where the figures go from here, but the journey has already been far more satisfying, and exhilarating, both in development and launch than I ever could have imagined. In today’s market, I’m not sure anyone can guarantee this level of success, but if there’s a game that you desperately want to make, there’s always the chance that you’ll be surprised by just how well it does…

Watch out for iOS 9

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Will wearables be the next big gaming platform?

Almost every new technology platform has eventually ended up becoming a gaming platform, whether it was intended that way or not. PCs were originally work stations, but now owning one is the only way to be a “serious” gamer and engage with the likes of LOL and WoW. Smart phones were, well, phones before Apple opened up the App Store and games came to dominate both downloads and revenue.

So will the Apple Watch specifically, and wearables in general follow the same trend? I think it’s unlikely, but the way that we play on mobile might be about to go through a major upheaval due to the quick replies in iOS 9, which are already being used in my Watch apps.

Wearables suck for gaming

Watches make for very poor gaming platforms for three main reasons:

They are too small

The screen size is so small that it’s very difficult to fit much on there. Even if you focus entirely on UI then you might get four clickable buttons on screen and nothing else. A button and a readable image? … kind of. Descriptive text? … LOL.

Input control are imprecise

The Apple Watch can tell if you tap somewhere on the screen or swipe right across it, as well as giving users some finer control with the crown. Telling where users on the screen is another matter though – as above, the screen really isn’t big enough to fit multiple touch areas on anyway. This really restricts the amount of control that you can give players and actions that you can permit them to make. Games with single input controls are fine, but most current designs are too visual to work on a Watch.

It’s uncomfortable to use for long periods

You can play a lot of games on your phone with just one hand, allowing you to do lots of other things at the same time – carry the groceries, hold onto a bus handle, use the toilet… But that’s not the case with the watch. Although you’re only using one hand to input, you need to keep your other wrist in position to do that, effectively preventing you from doing anything else with that hand. So the watch is a two handed device. That drastically reduces the number of occasions it’s possible to use a watch in, and given the angle that you need to hold your wrist at to see the Watch it gets uncomfortable after more than a few seconds as well.

The watch is a two handed device

That’s not to say that there aren’t some games giving the Watch a good shot: Runeblade and Cupcake Dungeon are both passable idle RPGs, though you would probably skip them if they were on Kongregate or you didn’t have a Watch. Lifeline has done well in the App Store charts, probably because its notifications based story is gripping whether you have a Watch or not.

Actionable notifications are the next big thing in mobile gaming

quick-reply-ios-8

And that’s really my point. Anything that works well on the Watch works because it has minimal inputs and proactively reaches out to the player. With quick replies in OS 9, any app will be able to do this though, not just ones that you get on your Watch. Now apps can not only let you know that something has happened, but also get your reaction to that information without you leaving the lock screen.

fallout-shelter-800x350

Imagine Fallout Shelter with this functionality. You already get notifications warning you that your dwellers have been in the wasteland for a while and you should check on them before they die. Now you could be given an option in the notification to recall them. Suddenly the notification isn’t a annoyance pestering you to return and play the game, it IS playing the game. Games can reach out to players throughout the day, keeping players engaged and themselves front of mind, and then deliver a longer, more satisfying session when players have the time.

Dual format sessions are already used by some of the most successful games

Players are already used to these sorts of different sessions. In the Fallout example, players might check in to the app to prevent a dweller from being out in the wasteland too long and dying. But they will still want to return to the app for longer later, to see what loot their dweller had found, and dole this out to the other dwellers. In Clash of Clans you often collect your resources 2 or 3 times a day, but might only attack people or reconfigure your defence in one, longer session.

Of course not all genres are suitable for this sort of gameplay. Games that rely on action, graphics and twitch controls will not work at all, whilst games that rely heavily on decision making will work best. But that means genres like strategy, simulation and RPG – some of the biggest top grossing genres on the App Store at the moment – could be adapted to make use of this, and my prediction is that within the next year we’ll see at least one top 10 game with more player interactions through notifications than through the app itself.

TL;DR

As with the analysis that a lot of apps are going to become much closer to messaging, and make much greater use of notifications, games are going to follow suit. The top grossing genres on the App Store currently are ones that could make most use of actionable notifications – strategy, simulation and RPG. Games that make use of actionable notifications will work well on iPhone and Apple Watch alike.

30 seconds to make a hit

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I’ve written before on how competitive the mobile games market is, and how difficult it is to stand out. Whilst having a great idea might give you hit game, it’s unlikely to fare well against the entrenched competition that dominates the top grossing charts. If you want indie fame and creative glory then by all means come up with a great idea and build it. If you want commercial success then you need a commercial strategy. So how do you do that?

  1. Understand your audience
  2. Articulate your Key Selling Points
  3. Deliver on your vision in 30s

 

Understand your audience

With a team in place it’s vital that you understand the audience that you are targeting. What are they playing at the moment? How many of them are there? What do they like and dislike about the current games they are playing? What are the points that they pay at or stop playing?

To make a commercially successful game you need to build a superior product for your audience, and if you don’t have a good idea of what they are looking for then it’s down to blind luck whether you make it or not. The odds aren’t great given the number of moving parts in a game if you don’t have a solid understanding of who your audience is, what they want and what they don’t want.

There are lots of ways that you can find out about your audience. Adam covered some here. See what the audience of existing games talk about on their Facebook pages and in forums. See what they are doing in the metrics of your existing games, if you have any. Recruit players via targeted Facebook ads to surveys and ask them about everything you can think of. Get a few players on the phone if possible, as the insight you will get from one to one conversations will be even deeper. Distill down all these insights into personas of the idealised player that you are building your game for, and make this visible and clear to the whole team.

Articulate your Key Selling Points

When I was 24 I set up a soft drink brand. I quickly learned pitching to retailers that I had to be able to articulate not only why it was great, but why it was better than something else that they were already selling. Pointing to their chiller cabinets, the conversation would go something like this:

“Hey, do you want to buy some of my drinks?”

“Do you see any space in my chiller?”

“No.”

“Ok, so what should I take out of my chiller to make room for your drinks?”

“[Something disgusting looking]”

“Why would I take that out? I sell hundreds of those each week”

“ …. “

chiller cabinet

Which product are you going to replace?

It’s the same with games. People are already playing games in the little free time that they have. The games that they are playing are the really good successful ones. That’s why those games are successful. If you’re not making a game that is obviously better than what they are already playing then why would they even try it?

So this leads to defining your Key Selling Points (KSPs). By this point you should know your audience inside out, so you should know what will really stand out and appeal to them. It doesn’t matter what you are excited about, it matters what your audience will get excited about. This needs to be a short list, perhaps 3-5 items long, each concisely articulated. Think about what you could communicate in a Facebook ad or a tweet, or even with your app name and icon – this may be all a player sees of your game before deciding whether or not to download it.

Empires and Allies

Empire & Allies has striking visuals in its marketing materials that clearly set it apart from Clash of Clans.

Exciting visuals are imperative here – as the adage goes: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. You can also look at the app descriptions of other apps in your category that are doing well. Many apps list out their Key Selling Points in convenient bullet form in their app description. Work out how to make your app sound even better and more exciting.

And remember, each of these 3 steps should come before you do any work actually building your game …

Deliver on your vision

Now you have a great team, a firm understanding of your audience and a snappy list of KSPs. These KSPs are effectively your design pillars. If a feature doesn’t support one of your KSPs then consider cutting it. It might be the best feature in the world, but if it’s not delivering on a KSP then your audience doesn’t care about it, or will never know about it before they stop playing your game.

Criminal Case spent 30% of their development time (6 months) working on their first session

Criminal Case spent 30% of their development time (6 months) working on their first session

Consider breaking the normal flow of the game to deliver a first experience that is exciting enough for players to want to play more. A great example of this is Clash of Clans giving you wizards in your first session to go and make an attack with. It immediately gives you a very visual impression of how exciting battles can be, fireballs flying everywhere, whilst you’re still a complete noob and weeks away from actually being able to build wizards yourself.

You need to deliver on all your KSPs in the first session, and preferably within the first 30 seconds of the user experience. F2P games are by definition free to download, so players barely think twice about downloading stuff that looks interesting. But if it doesn’t deliver on the promise immediately they’ll also likely never give it another chance – they have nothing invested in the experience both literally and metaphorically. Think about how many free apps you’ve downloaded because they sounded great, tried once, and then abandoned in disappointment. If it’s anything like me then it’s a LOT. You know what your audience wants, so make sure they see you are good for it as soon as you possibly can.

TL;DR

In today’s crowded app market you need to have a solid commercial strategy if you hope to have a commercially successful game. 

  1. Understand your audience
  2. Articulate your Key Selling Points
  3. Deliver on your vision in 30s

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

The Vocation of Mobile


Sometimes I am haunted by Nelson Mandela. Or rather his quote: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Working in mobile games, it’s easy to get stopped in your tracks by this quote, and to reflect on whether you shouldn’t be doing something more meaningful. Could there be anything more trivial than looking for ways to break Candy Crush Saga’s stranglehold on wasting people’s time?

Mobile: It Changes Everything from Andreessen Horowitz on Vimeo.

There are, of course huge hidden value judgements in this way of thinking. It’s is just 7 years since the App Store was opened, and only 5 years since free to play was made possible when Apple allowed in-app purchases. Mobile games are undoubtedly a young medium, and aren’t yet given the same consideration of older and more established art forms such as books and film. But there is no reason this should be the case. There are now 2 billion people with smartphones, and mobile games account for about 40% of apps downloaded. There has never been a creative medium that is more widely distributed, and we are only just starting to explore the potential of it.

“The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?”

– Reverend Enos Hitchcock, Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family, 1790

New creative media have always been criticised by politicians and social commentators for the dangers they pose to society. As mobile games are the latest way people have found to express themselves and create, we should not expect them to be free from this criticism. But it would be naive and short sighted to think that this criticism is somehow immutable or different to the outrage originally provoked by novels, film or rock and roll when they first appeared.

This new form of entertainment has gone far to blast maidenhood … Depraved adults with candies and pennies beguile children with the inevitable result. The Society has prosecuted many for leading girls astray through these picture shows, but GOD alone knows how many are leading dissolute lives begun at the ‘moving pictures.’

– The Annual Report of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1909

This of course does not mean that all games are worthy or should be considered art, just as we wouldn’t judge Sharknado 3 on the same level as Citizen Kane. If we want games to be considered art then as game makers we have a duty to make games artistic. If we want to feel comfortable in the context of Mandela’s quote then we have to make mobile games to our full potential – the scale of the medium is clearly there to support it.

How do we fulfil our potential as makers of mobile games? This is the same question as: how do we fulfill our creative potential in any other medium? And on this subject I am a big fan of the way that Scott McCloud thinks about things in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. It is a fantastic comic that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in art of any form, either as a spectator or a creator. In it, McCloud outlines six steps by which art is created:

Creation of art: Idea > Form > Idiom > Structure > Craft > Surface

  • Idea is the original purpose of the work. The message that it is meant to convey to others.
  • Form is the way that this idea is presented to others. Is it a game, film or book and so on.
  • Idiom is the genre or type of the form that the work falls into. It is the style that it takes.
  • Structure is the architecture and pacing of the work. What is the focus, what is included, and what is left out.
  • Craft is the quality of the production. The amount of technical skill used to create the finished product.
  • Surface is the polish that goes on top. The initial impression that a piece gives to the audience.

understanding comics

In contrast to how art is made, artists generally develop their skills backwards through this same path:

Development of artist: Idea < Form < Idiom < Structure < Craft < Surface

That is to say, many game designers start out mimicking the work of others and smoothing out the appearance and function of our games. We rebuild Pong to learn a programming language or working in QA we spot bugs and ensure a consistent finish throughout games. This is learning to master the surface.

As we progress we learn our craft – how to make things at a professional level. As a junior designer we learn how to write a proper spec and conduct user tests, as well as how to design off the shelf features to deliver particular player responses.

We get more experience and we start concentrating on the structure of our work. We learn how to pace a player through our games, how to balance the mechanics and optimize the first session. We recognise the necessary and sufficient features that should be brought together to create a satisfying whole – the required skillset for a competent lead designer.

At this point, how far we continue down the chain depends on our personal motivations. Those who are ambitious in commercial terms will likely focus on idiom, whilst more artist types will probably prefer form or idea.

To work on what McCloud calls idiom requires significant talent. Here we are considering the genre that our games are, and how we can make a meaningful contribution to it. How far can we stretch the definition of the genre to appeal to the same audience and deliver the experience they are after. I would argue this is where the most commercially successful designers will be, as the top 10 grossing charts in any medium are usually meaningful and insightful innovations on established genres. Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans are both good examples of games that took this approach and pushed the evolution of an existing genre another step.

To focus on form is to be concerned about the potential of games, stretching the boundaries of what games are, and how artistic they can be. This is to make games for the sake of making games and to explore new mechanics. Drei Etter and Karen are examples here. Drei Etter is an abstract set of puzzles that is game like, but really it is more exploration of collaboration between mute strangers. Karen is an interactive video story that stretches the boundaries between games and films, exploring our intimate relationship with technology. Both are interactive experiences that are truly innovative and creative, stretching our perception of what games can be.

In contrast, those who choose idea at this point are more concerned with using games as a way of communicating specific concepts or messages. Designers here are concerned with bending the medium to deliver an experience that cannot be delivered in another way. These sorts of games usually have a strong narrative or setting. Few mobile games are outstanding here (the medium is young, after all), but a game like Journey shows what is possible on consoles. It explores life and death in a way that is reliant on the controls, feedback and social nature of games in a way that isn’t possible in other media.

Is form, or idea, or idiom superior to the others? All may be of interest at different times and to different people, and of course choosing one doesn’t mean excluding the others forever. Most creatives will need to balance their need to earn a living and their desire to reach an audience against experimenting with new mechanics or exploring issues that are important to them. Not that creating something commercial excludes entirely making something artistic – this is perhaps better seen as a vague spectrum rather than a binary choice.

jurassic-park-original-logo

Take Steven Spielberg’s work for instance. In 1993 two hugely different films: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. Both were massive successes, but in very different ways. Schindler’s List is the defining depiction of the Holocaust for most people today. Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to life for millions and spawning a hugely lucrative series that is still running strong. Both built on the reputation that Spielberg had built up over the previous 20 years. Few would argue that Jurassic Park the more artistic work, but would so many people have seen Schindler’s List if Spielberg had not made so many mainstream films of its ilk? And wouldn’t a world without velociraptors on the big screen be a less exciting, imaginative place? Which film was the full potential of Spielberg as a filmmaker? Different people might have different answers, but either way few would accuse him of “playing small”.

The vocation of mobile games is not that we consider the current crop of mobile games to be masterpieces, but that we believe that the medium can support them. If the current state falls short of our aspirations, then that only makes the challenge of reaching them a fuller test of our own potential. This is not a transformation that will happen overnight, or to the exclusion of mediocre work, but given another 10 or 20 years I believe we will see plenty of examples of great mobile games, however people set the criteria, and plenty of people who are proud to have made them.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Eliminating Energy

In my previous post Understanding Energy I explained the reasons that designers include energy systems in their games:

  1. Habituation
  2. Content Pacing
  3. Monetisation
  4. Strategic Choices

I also noted that energy systems aren’t particularly elegant systems – they rarely blend well with the setting of the game, and this disconnect makes them disliked by players. Removing energy systems from mobile games is no easy task. There are some directions that bear consideration and further investigation though.

Pacing through quests

Hearthstone-quests

Energy systems pace players by limiting the amount that they can play. This clearly prevents players progressing too fast through a game’s content. However, it is possible to limit the rate of progression directly, whilst leaving play unlimited. The way to do this is to decouple the main source of rewards in the game from play, so that rewards can be limited independently of play time.

The best case of this is Hearthstone. Here the quest system is the main pacing mechanic, as it is the main way that players can earn in-game currency. Players get one new quest each day and each quest requires perhaps three to ten matches to complete. Once the player has exhausted their missions, they can continue playing for rank or pleasure, but their ability to earn coins is negligible and so the game economy is protected.

For most mobile games this route is likely to be the easiest and most satisfactory route to removing energy and timers.

Session length and synchronous PvP

Another way of pacing players is to increase the amount of play time required to progress. The pace that players can progress is then limited by the number of hours they can sink into the game. The big caveat to this is that it is much easier to do this on console / PC than on mobiles.

Mobile games are designed to fill the gaps in people’s days – when they are waiting for the bus, queuing for their coffee or avoiding work on the toilet. A mobile game needs to have a satisfying session possible in 1-3 minutes to fill these gaps. For a mobile game it is very difficult to give players a satisfying session in just a few minutes without bombarding them with rewards if they decide to play for a few hours – perhaps 50-60 sessions all in one go.

PC and console games have it easier as they are designed to be played in stretches of 2-3 hours at a time. A Hearthstone match lasts 5-15 minutes, whilst a League of Legends match lasts 30-45 minutes, so a few hours play is a handful of matches. This means that the base rate of progress can be extremely slow. These games get away with such slow progression because they rely heavily on synchronous PvP battles. The excitement of facing off against other people in real time compensates for slow progression in the meta game.

World-of-Tanks-Blitz

Mobile games typically have problems with synchronous PvP because people want to pick up and drop mobile games at any time, and there is little commitment to stick with match, which combined makes for a poor user experience. That said, World of Tanks Blitz has managed to be successful in spite of these challenges. Although the battles are typically only 4-6 minutes, the game still manages pace progression slow enough to avoid an energy system.

The problem that World of Tanks Blitz has is that whilst it covers off content pacing just fine, it monetizes very poorly compared to most other successful mobile games. Indeed seems unlikely World of Tanks Blitz would be successful without a PC product to support its brand awareness. 8 Ball Pool has also managed to be successful here with even shorter play sessions, but faces the same issue with revenue. Being the dominant digital version of a hugely popular real world game seems to be a major factor in 8 Ball Pool’s success.

Limited progression and asynchronous PvP

words with friends

Another small set of mobile games have managed to be successful without energy systems by limiting the amount of progression available to players. Games such as Words with Friends and Draw Something offer players an asynchronous PvP experience that is incredibly viral, and where the costs of creating content are minimal.

As content is generated by other players, there is no need to limit play time. However, in order to keep the playing field fair and prevent the games becoming play to win, these games have very little to offer in terms of progression and hence to sell to players. Both Draw Something and Words with Friends rely heavily on in-game advertising to generate revenue as they have so little to sell themselves to players.

Framing

If eliminating energy altogether is not possible then framing it correctly to players can greatly improve the player experience. World of Warcraft experimented with their pacing system, primarily to habituate players into certain play patterns. Their initial mechanism halved the XP that players could earn after a certain point, encouraging them to end their session.

Players universally hated it. Blizzard responded by reframing the system, turning “normal” XP into “bonus” XP that still halved at exactly the same point, but now instead of dropping down to a penalized level, it just dropped something they called “normal” XP. Suddenly players loved the system; although the numbers were exactly the same players felt rewarded instead of punished.

In the same way, timers usually feel better than energy points. If it takes me a certain amount of time to build a building, travel somewhere or train troops then that fits with the narrative of the game and feels better than it costing energy, which appears to be (and is) an arbitrary cap on the amount I can play.

PADenergy costs

Another way to make energy feel better to players is to give players some control over it. Basically, make a game out of spending energy. In Brave Frontier and Puzzle & Dragons the amount of energy that each levels costs differs. Players have to figure out how best to spend their energy, and not leave a small amount left over and wasted.

In Boom Beach players only need to train troops if their troops die in combat. Players can therefore attack lots of different opponents in the same session, as long as they pick them carefully. The game is obviously balanced to players playing in this way, but they feel a lot smarter because of the control they have over the timers presented to them.

TL;DR

Eliminating energy is not an easy design challenge for mobile games. Pacing player rewards is one obvious route that more games should investigate. Some games may be able to rely on PvP play and user generated content to limit the rate of progression, though monetizing these games is generally a challenge. For many games the best they will be able to do is to frame their energy systems in ways that make them more palatable to players.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Understanding Energy Systems

Energy seems to be hated by designers and players alike, so why does it endure as the hallmark of casual F2P games? The fact is that whilst it’s a crude mechanic, it’s also an efficient one, delivering several functions in one easily implementable feature.

This isn’t a defence of energy systems – I’ll follow up with a post on ways of replacing them – but without something fulfilling these roles then it’s unlikely you’ll make a very good game. I’ll talk about energy and timers fairly interchangeably here as they are both pacing systems that function remarkably similarly.

The four main reasons that mobile designers use energy systems are:

  1. Habituation
  2. Content pacing
  3. Monetization
  4. Strategic choices

1. Habituation
The primary reason that designers use energy systems is to encourage players to play as long and as frequently as they would like. The amount of energy gives an easy way to fix the length of the play session, whilst the energy refill rate determines the play frequency. Energy systems do this by providing the player with closure – the feeling that they have done everything they need to in a game, and that when they return there will be new, fun stuff to do.

farmville2

This is why crop and resource production timers work so well. Players coming back to the game harvest all the crops that have grown whilst they are away – a hugely positive experience. Then they can use the crops to complete deals, craft things and improve their farm. Finally they plant their crops so ready for their next session. As they leave the game there is nothing more for them to do in their farm, so it feels like a natural point to stop playing; but they also know that when they return they can get the satisfaction of harvesting their crops again.

Designers need to be able to control session length and frequency because it allows them to integrate their game into their players’ daily routine. Any activity that becomes part of your daily routine is likely to be something that you keep doing a lot longer than you otherwise might, and long term retention is highly correlated to lifetime value.

Think of the game as chocolate. If you had unlimited chocolate (and limited willpower) you might binge on it to the point you were sick of it. At this point you wouldn’t want to eat chocolate again for a while. Imagine if you got a small piece of chocolate every afternoon with your coffee break though. Now the chocolate enhances your coffee break, but at the same time, you never have enough in one go to get sick of it. Instead you look forward to the chocolate enhanced coffee break, and would miss it if it was taken away from you. As with chocolate, so goes gaming.

2. Content pacing

The second main reason that designers use energy systems is to pace their content, and to ensure that players consume content at roughly the same rate. Once players have run out of new content to experience, they usually have little interest in a game. It is vital therefore, to ensure that players are not consuming content faster than you can produce it.

Energy systems are crucial to minimising inequality in game economies; they ensure that players all consume content at roughly the same rate

PvP games often have an advantage here because their players effectively produce content for each other to consume. In Clash of Clans, each player’s layout of their base is unique and interesting for other players to attack. But Clash of Clans still needs to bring out new units, upgrade levels and features on a regular basis to keep their most engaged players.

Energy systems also help to reduce the “distribution of wealth” in games that exists between highly engaged and less engaged users. By capping the rate that the most engaged players can play, they cannot get too far ahead of the less engaged players. This is important for balancing, as a game should remain interesting for both types of players, and setting a progression rate that is interesting for the slowest players and yet doesn’t allow the fastest players to run out of content can otherwise be a challenge.

3. Monetization

get-more-lives

Making money is the third reason that designers use energy systems. In casual games energy might typically represent a third of bookings. This is not insignificant, but there are better ways to make money out of games, and monetization alone is a poor reason to go with an energy system. Energy doesn’t typically make for a very exciting or satisfying purchase, as it gives players something that they could get if they waited a bit longer. Most mobile designers realise this and despite the perception of energy systems as a cynical way to extort players, it is rare to see them if they are not needed for habituation and content pacing as well.

4. Strategic choices

In some games energy systems also provide the player with a strategic choice that they need to make. This comes from having a limited number of energy points to spend each session, and a greater number of possible actions. Players must decide what to spend their energy on, and because of this they usually need to set themselves a longer term goal that they are working towards over several sessions.

For example, in Clash of Clans, because I can only upgrade 2 or 3 buildings at a time, and each one might take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, I need to work out what I prioritise. Do I upgrade my resource generating buildings first to facilitate further upgrades, my storage space allowing me to raid more, or my defensive buildings to protect what I’ve got? In prioritising my current session, I also create a mid term plan for my future sessions as well, which builds off this. In games where the energy system doesn’t allow the player any real choice in what they do, the system typically feels even more arbitrary and restrictive.

 

TL; DR

The reason that F2P designers use energy systems is not because they hate players, it’s because energy systems are efficient mechanics to encourage specific play patterns, pace content, monetize a game and provide a player with strategic choices. Designers should be wary of releasing any game without features that cover all these bases one way or another.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Hearthstone: A Game Changer for Mobile F2P?


Blizzard’s Hearthstone has defined collectable card games (CCGs) on mobile over the past year, and with the recent launch of the versions for smart phones on both iOS and Android the mobile revenues have rocketed roughly sevenfold.

Hearthstone is an interesting game to look at, because it breaks so many of the conventions of mobile F2P:

  • It has no energy system
  • It sells only permanent items
  • It is highly skill based
  • It is mainly synchronous PvP

As such it appeals to a lot of self designated “gamers” that find other mobile games somehow below them. This run down of the game will take apart the main features and discuss how they create and great game, and whether there are larger implications for the mobile F2P industry.

Core Loop

The core loop in Hearthstone is incredibly simple:

Hearthstone

There are two main play modes: Ranked and Arena.

Ranked can be considered the basic game mode, where players play against each other synchronously to climb a monthly ladder. Players use decks that they have constructed from their permanent card collections. It is free to play, and players earn coins for winning matches and completing quests that appear daily.

Arena can be considered a secondary play mode, but is hugely important to and complements Ranked play. Here players also play synchronously with each other, but they must pay an entry fee – either coins or real money. Players make a deck as they enter the arena, choosing one of three cards at a time until they have a full deck. The rewards depend on a player’s performance, but can be generous compared to the entry cost.

The balance of the two modes is important, because it provides both payers and non payers, as well as players of different skills something to do. Earlier on, players may find Ranked play easier as they learn to put together decks that rely on specific combos. Later on they may find Arena more fun as there is the challenge of putting together a deck on the fly, and all players have the same chance of getting legendary cards.

Pacing

Hearthstone-quests

Quests act as the pacing system in Hearthstone, but it is so well framed that many players don’t see it for is. Rather than restricting the number of matches that players can play in a certain time, quests limit the amount of coins that a player can earn. Players get one new quest each day, and are limited to having three in total at any one time. Players can earn small amounts of coins for winning matches in Ranked play (10 coins every 3 wins), but this is small both compared to the time it would take to play these matches (perhaps 30 minutes or more on average), as well as the coins earned from quests (40-100 per quest).

As players earn most of their coins from quests, and not from playing matches, Hearthstone has no need to limit the amount of times a player can play. Players can (and do) sink hours into climbing the rankings without breaking the economy, as after the first few games their in game earnings are virtually nil. This is such a simple yet effective feature I am amazed that more F2P games have not copied it – energy systems are by far the most hated, yet standard F2P systems.

Single currency, single resource

I count coins as the single currency in Hearthstone and dust as the single resource. Hearthstone does not have a soft currency for everyone and a hard currency for payers. It follows therefore that it does not have items that can only be bought for hard currency. Purchasable things in the game can either be bought for either coins or real money. Dust is reserved exclusively for crafting specific cards.

The fact that as a non payer you can get anything in the game, and you can earn coins at a reasonable rate, helps create an environment that seems fair and inviting for both payers and non payers alike. Whilst the temptation to drop real money on a bunch of packs is constant, it never feels like someone has beaten you just because they’ve spent money on the game.

Permanent purchases

Hearthstone-collection-management

The nature of card rarity in Hearthstone also supports the feeling of fairness. Cards have one of four rarities: common, rare, epic and legendary. However, in contrast to many of the other mobile CCGs, cards cannot be upgraded or fused. This means that buying cards always results in a permanent addition to your collection, either directly or through the crafting system.

As with all CCGs there needs to be some method of dealing with duplicate cards, to maintain the randomness of pack opening. Hearthstone only allows players to have two of each card (one of legendaries) in their deck. Duplicates beyond this can be disenchanted for Hearthstone’s main resource: dust, which in turn can be used to craft any card in Hearthstone. The conversion rate is obviously not great – cards give only 25% of their cost to craft when they are disenchanted, and making progressively rarer cards gets ever more expensive. You need to disenchant 320 common cards to craft a single legendary. But the system does mean that even if players only get duplicates through randomly opening packs they can work towards specific cards that they want to create particular decks.

The fact that purchases result in permanent items that cannot be taken away from the player makes them all the more attractive. Players know that if they get a legendary card they will always have it, and its power will stay constant. Players can still spend huge amounts of money on the game, as there are so many cards to collect and the chance of getting a legendary is so low. Various Reddit posts put the cost of a Legendary at around $12-24, so with 67 legendary cards currently players could easily spend over $1,000 getting all of those alone. The cost of the epics and rare cards would be on top of that, and players can pay 4x for cards with a gold back – a purely cosmetic change.

Buying Experience

The permanence of purchases together with the overall polish in the game creates an incredibly positive buying experience. You would expect nothing less from Blizzard of course, but the pack opening sequence is spectacular, especially when compared to the drab experience in many mobile F2P games to skip a timer or add more resources. Buying something feels great, a detail that is all too often overlooked.

Skilled play vs. Pay to Win

blizzconhearth

Most mobile F2P games steer clear of including too much skill. Skill makes games more difficult to balance, as players will have a varied experience of the same content. Furthermore, with highly skilled games it is difficult to give players a continuous sense of progression, as their skill level will typically plateau after an initial learning period. As most mobile F2P games are selling progress, they need to maintain the sense of progression that grind based games give, as ensure that players have broadly the same experience by leveling the playing field with luck.

In contrast, Hearthstone has a high degree of skill – the game has an impressive number of tournaments and events, and Blizzard host a World Championship at BlizzCon that had a prize pool of $250k last year. Youtube and Twitch are awash with Hearthstone matches and the top players are starting to make their fame and fortune from the game. This is clearly a far cry from games like Clash of Clans or Game of War, where success largely depends on the amount of time (and money) players can grind into the game.

That said, in Ranked play, working your way up gets more difficult the higher you go not only because you meet more skilled opponents. Any player will tell you that you need to both have the right cards to put together in a deck to create the right combos, as well as the ability to change your deck as you go. This flexibility is vital as the meta game changes as you move through the ranks. At a given time, rush decks might be unstoppable at ranks 20-15, but easy prey above rank 10.

Always having the right epic and legendary cards to finish off your deck becomes essential, but you rarely need very many of them to create a good deck. The pressure to spend is in having the necessary breadth of cards, rather than a deck construct solely of very rare cards. This creates a dynamic where players do need to spend to play at the highest levels, just as League of Legend players need to practice with all the different Heroes rather than just the ones that are freely available that week. At the same time each individual card is balanced for its mana cost and players who have spent a lot of money to acquire a lot of different cards might be beaten by a player who has spent very little, but happens to have the right cards for that particular battle. Players must spend to progress in general, but matches don’t feel pay to win.

Synchronous PvP

Hearthstone is one of the only successful mobile games to centre on its synchronous PvP experience. Vainglory and others have tried to take this challenge on, but no one else has succeeded except another game backed by a massive desktop IP: World of Tanks Blitz. Hearthstone was in beta on PC 9 months before coming to iPad, and had half a million downloads before it even hit the App Store. This period was essential to give them the critical mass needed to match players with each other at an appropriate level. Without it players would either be facing long wait times every match they played, or getting matched against players of very different skill – either case is a potentially game breaking experience.

Blizzard’s ability to drum up this level of interest in a new game is a testament to their expertise at launching new synchronous PvP games, but absolutely not a reference that other developers can hope to emulate. Without Blizzard’s existing World of Warcraft IP, installed fanbase, community management efforts and PR, the game would have faced a much harder prospect of building the community necessary for critical mass. I do not believe that we will see a synchronous PvP based game successful on mobile without a PC version any time soon.

Wrap Up

The success of Hearthstone, combined with how different it is from many other mobile F2P games makes you expect it would have a huge impact on the prevailed design trends in the industry. The pacing system in particular seems superior to the energy systems that are still prevalent in many games. However, the fact that Hearthstone was launched PC first on the back of the huge World of Warcraft brand has allowed a number of other differences that the vast majority of mobile F2P developers cannot hope to emulate.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.