Arena of Valor - The Biggest Hit You've Never Played

Arena of Valor - The Biggest Hit You've Never Played

What do you think is the mobile game that makes the most money today? You may think Clash Royale, Pokemon Go, Candy Crush Saga or Game of War. You know, those few games that have parked on the top of the charts for years with absolutely no intention to leave. Well, if you think it's any of those games, you're wrong. You see, the highest grossing mobile game in the world in 2017 as of today is Arena of Valor. A game that has been out less than a 18 months in China in addition to being soft-launched in a few key Western markets.

(NOTE: Arena of Valor was known as "Strike of Kings" for a long time during its soft launch. Some images and comments may refer to the title as this game, but rest assured it's the same title.)

After a good year being soft launched Arena of Valor has finally launched globally. This is a somewhat surprising move from Tencent, which had postponed the global launch of the game several times now. An unexpected move that was likely influenced by the announcement of Vainglory's 5v5 map just days prior

So what is Arena of Valor? Well first of all, the Chinese name for the game is 王者荣耀 (Honor of Kings) and it's a 5 on 5 multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) developed by non other than the all-mighty Tencent. You're reading this deconstruction because the game has already made over $1.5B in China alone, having toppled the mighty Fantasy Westward Journey from the number 1 slot upon release. It also has the prestige of having the biggest and most important featuring slot of the year releasing in the week before Christmas in North America.

 Arena of Valor has experienced an unbelievable growth in China surpassing games like Clash Royale, Pokemon Go, Puzzle & Dragons, and Candy Crush Saga to become the top grossing game worldwide. And all of this happened before it was officially launched globally.   

Arena of Valor has experienced an unbelievable growth in China surpassing games like Clash Royale, Pokemon Go, Puzzle & Dragons, and Candy Crush Saga to become the top grossing game worldwide. And all of this happened before it was officially launched globally.   

Tencent is the world’s biggest gaming company and on top of holding a virtual monopoly in China also have diversified assets in the West such as owning Supercell, Riot Games, Miniclip, Pocket Gems and having a majority share in the developers of the Unreal Engine Epic. Quite simply, they are playing in a league of their own.

Arena of Valor is essentially the mobile version of League of Legends (League of Legends deconstruction), but without using it’s IP, despite Tencent owning the developers of League of Legends, Riot Games. However, there are a number of subtle differences made to the game to make it more digestible for mobile audiences.

 Despite low ARPU’s, both League of Legends and DOTA 2 (Valve) make an extraordinary amount of money yearly. These numbers are now dated, as LoL is rumored to make over $2B a year making it the world’s most lucrative PC F2P game.

Despite low ARPU’s, both League of Legends and DOTA 2 (Valve) make an extraordinary amount of money yearly. These numbers are now dated, as LoL is rumored to make over $2B a year making it the world’s most lucrative PC F2P game.

Mobile MOBAs

Given the incredible success of League of Legends and DOTA, many companies have tried unsuccessfully to bring a MOBA to mobile. MOBAs require a critical mass of players in order to have short match waiting times and gain popularity in a fiercely competitive market. Even the mighty Supercell seems to be trying to take a piece of this market with their MOBA / Arena Shooter hybrid Brawl Stars

 Many companies have tried to make a MOBA work on mobile with Vainglory, Fates Forever and Mobile Legends being 3 of the most high profile ones. However, none of these titles have yet reached the level of success that MOBA games on PC have achieved.

Many companies have tried to make a MOBA work on mobile with Vainglory, Fates Forever and Mobile Legends being 3 of the most high profile ones. However, none of these titles have yet reached the level of success that MOBA games on PC have achieved.

In general MOBAs do not have a high monetization on a per player basis due to their extremely competitive nature. In other words, it's nearly impossible to sell any buffs in these type of game leaving cosmetic items as the main source of revenue. Thus the business case for MOBAs is based on extremely large volume of players who are heavily engaged and play for years.

 Despite having a hardcore audience and making a lot of money, MOBA games have a very low monetization per user rate compared to many other top MMO games. Part of this is due to game's audience, with many teenagers and students playing MOBA games. However, it also shows you that despite being a hardcore game, MOBA success comes from having a large reach.

Despite having a hardcore audience and making a lot of money, MOBA games have a very low monetization per user rate compared to many other top MMO games. Part of this is due to game's audience, with many teenagers and students playing MOBA games. However, it also shows you that despite being a hardcore game, MOBA success comes from having a large reach.

Given the LTV and CPI model used by most companies to scale users on mobile, MOBAs on mobile have had a hard time succeeding because LTV’s just aren’t high enough (yet) to warrant the $8+ CPI acquisition costs found in the mobile mid-core space.

The WeChat Factor

So if MOBAs have a low ARPU but expensive CPI's, how have Tencent managed to make this game a Billion dollar success in China? Step forward the power of WeChat.

In China, Tencent is the operator of WeChat, a combination of many service apps rolled into a messaging platform and social network. The last reported numbers from 2017 show that over 850 million users use the service every month (!), and through this platform, Tencent has been able to funnel users into their own games, of which Arena of Valor is one.

Given the key to a hit MOBA is building up a critical mass, being able to leverage one of the largest social networks in the world essentially cost-free to push users into a game genre that is known to be incredibly sticky has proven to be a lucrative move, to say the least. How Tencent plans to succeed in the West without the power of WeChat remains to be seen, but their recent investment in SnapChat, hints at a similar play, as SnapChat's high penetration and usage among the teen market is the perfect demographic to target for a MOBA.

 In just China alone, App Annie estimates that Arena of Valorhas made over $600m on iOS alone. Add in Android revenues and the discrepancy AppAnnie usually reports and it's safe to say that this game has grossed well over $1B since launch. 

In just China alone, App Annie estimates that Arena of Valorhas made over $600m on iOS alone. Add in Android revenues and the discrepancy AppAnnie usually reports and it's safe to say that this game has grossed well over $1B since launch. 

Core Gameplay

 The core loop of Arena of Valor (and most MOBA games) is fairly simple to understand.

The core loop of Arena of Valor (and most MOBA games) is fairly simple to understand.

Players battle each other in a single-serving 5-on-5 team battle with hero characters and gain rewards after that battle, which can be used to upgrade and improve their characters, forming the meta progression of the game. Fairly tried and trusted stuff, but there are some noteworthy things about the loop design in the game:

  • The loop is clean and modern. There are no energy or timer mechanics, and the game incentivizes players to play 6 games a day through a simple Treasure Chest feature.

  • Progression comes through incredible depth and breadth of content, gated by soft currency and XP which requires a huge amount of gameplay.
  • There is a daily gold (soft currency) cap, which restricts players from burning through through the content rapidly. This doesn’t exist in PC MOBAs.

  • Games can range from anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. Whilst the game experience has been tuned to result in faster battle, the full PC MOBA experience is alive and well. There have been no concessions made in terms of skill level and strategic mastery required to succeed at the highest level.

A contextual virtual d-pad is used for movement and attacks instead of going for an entirely touch-based system like Vainglory. This makes the game arguably more accessible as it is designed to be played with two thumbs unlike Vainglory, which as an iPad first game was originally designed to be played with two index fingers. Accessibility of gameplay over Vainglory can be felt from the get-go with simple things like attacking. In Vainglory, a player has to accurately tap on an opponent they want to attack mimicking gameplay with a mouse while Arena of Valor employs auto-attack, where a tap on an attack button causes player simply to attack the nearest opponent. Vainglory is for sure more accurate and is likely more interesting for hardcore players looking for that last hit while Arena of Valor is just way more accessible. 

The accessibility remains a thread across the set of all key features. Unlike in LoL, UX is streamlined so that player is able to access key functionality without going through multiple menus. For example talents and quick item purchases through two intelligent choices are given to you whenever you can buy a new item.

 Arena of Valor uses a number of gameplay optimizations successfully to incorporate key game mechanics from League of Legends on smaller mobile devices.

Arena of Valor uses a number of gameplay optimizations successfully to incorporate key game mechanics from League of Legends on smaller mobile devices.

Some new features added compared to LoL:

  • players can pick regeneration orbs, which increase health or mana.
  • Players can also teleport somewhere on the map after a cooldown.

These additions seem small and in some ways make the game slightly less hardcore, however, it acts in streamlining the experience to make it faster, punchier and more exciting. Perfect for mobile. Nevertheless, the game is a true 5-on-5 with three lanes in addition to multiple modes including 3-on-3 and 1-on-1.

Gameplay Objectives

Arena of Valor is a quintessential 5-on-5 MOBA. Players select a hero and queue into a game with 9 other real players split into two teams of 10, with the objective of destroying the enemy team’s generator. Battles contain creeps which are computer controlled characters that automatically spawn at the generator and make their way towards enemy's generator along the three lanes.

 In 5 on 5 mode, battles take place over a 3 lane battlefield with a central “Jungle” area. Between a team, it’s important to have a balance between attacking each lane and defending key areas from combined enemy pushes.  

In 5 on 5 mode, battles take place over a 3 lane battlefield with a central “Jungle” area. Between a team, it’s important to have a balance between attacking each lane and defending key areas from combined enemy pushes.
 

Each game is a single serving affair, where Heroes start at level 1 and gain levels during the battle for killing enemy creeps and heroes. Each kill or piece of damage increases your gold count, which you use to purchase items during the battle. Items improve heroes stats such as attack speed, damage, health and mana pool.

 Neutral creeps can be found in the Jungle areas. Killing these can earn bonus battle gold and XP to help level up a hero in battle quickly.

Neutral creeps can be found in the Jungle areas. Killing these can earn bonus battle gold and XP to help level up a hero in battle quickly.

If your hero is killed, you are respawned at your base after a delay, with the delay increasing based on your level and number of times you have died. Battles can last anywhere from 5 minutes to over an hour depending on the skill level of the players involved.

 The enemy generator. Destroy this to win the game for your team.

The enemy generator. Destroy this to win the game for your team.

MOBAs are a very social experience, with a huge emphasis on team play. Heroes can fulfill a variety of roles and work together to maximize the strengths of your own team whilst exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy team are the key to success.

Unique Game Mode: Abyssal Clash

An alternative game mode called "Abyssal Clash" is also present in the game, which varies the gameplay quite a bit.

 Abyssal Clash Mode has only a single lane and other unique rules making it feel very different to the traditional 5 on 5 arena.

Abyssal Clash Mode has only a single lane and other unique rules making it feel very different to the traditional 5 on 5 arena.

This mode features one lane, two towers for each team, and one base. The initial level is Lvl 2 and you can upgrade either basic skill. In this mode, you get your Ultimate ability at Lvl 4.

Heroes start with 800 Gold and spring water, located next to the team's generator, has no healing effect in this mode. Players will continue to gain experience, but there is no way to return to the base during the game, so once you leave it, items can only be purchased after you die. Health packages will appear at predetermined places along the lane.

In Abyssal Clash, each player's Heroes are randomly selected by the system, so whether you get a good or bad formation depends on your luck. However, the formation is not the key to victory in Abyssal Clash. Success depends on each team’s gameplay and cooperation. This Mode highlights the principle of "unity is power" - the outcome of the entire battle can be affected by a single player’s death or weakness.

Gameplay Summary 

Arena of Valor is an almost identical copy of League of Legends, but it must be said that it’s port onto mobile has been done brilliantly. The virtual stick control method is surprisingly effective and enjoyable to use, and some of the game's subtle tweaks such as customization of buildouts and recall / restore make the game really fun without sacrificing much of the complexity that makes MOBAs enjoyable for hardcore players.

I must also say that the game is super slick. The presentation is fantastic, loading times are quick and even matchmaking is rapid and frictionless. The game is almost bug-free and in terms of breadth of features, this game feels like it has it all. Multiple maps, team modes, game modes and events all feature and it’s obvious that Tencent is going to continue to support this game for a long time with many more updates and additions.

 Arena of Valor (Strike of Kings in the above chart) is a really feature-rich game. Compared to any of it's rivals, it has a ton of content and game modes. Vainglory is due to have its 5v5 mode in Q1 of 2018.

Arena of Valor (Strike of Kings in the above chart) is a really feature-rich game. Compared to any of it's rivals, it has a ton of content and game modes. Vainglory is due to have its 5v5 mode in Q1 of 2018.

The most important thing to comment on is that the game is really good fun to play. Many companies have tried to bring MOBAs to mobile in the past, and some of them have made great games, like the stunningly beautiful and technologically sound Vainglory. However, this game really does feel like it’s a class above everything else out there at the moment.
 

The Daily Battle Rewards Slow Down Players' Progress

Every day players can earn gold and player experience from completing up to 6 battles. Progress is marked as a nice visual indicator, which clearly shows players how well they are doing and what they can win.

 Arena of Valor is heavily tuned towards getting players to play 6 battles a day. Players are incentivised to play with a nice visual on the mian UI screen that updates every time you battle. Importantly players are rewarded regardless of if they win or lose.

Arena of Valor is heavily tuned towards getting players to play 6 battles a day. Players are incentivised to play with a nice visual on the mian UI screen that updates every time you battle. Importantly players are rewarded regardless of if they win or lose.

If they battle 6 times in a day, they also earn a hero trial card which can be used to try any hero in the game for one battle. After 6 battles, players can only earn currencies through achievements and social reciprocation loops, which is currently a big player complaint. However, it does not seem to affect the popularity of the game in China, probably because the core game is still playable and a great deal of fun.

Achievements

 Like many games, Arena of Valor has an Achievements system. It's the primary place to collect Gems from in the game.

Like many games, Arena of Valor has an Achievements system. It's the primary place to collect Gems from in the game.

Players earn achievements by completing a long list of quests in the game, such as reaching a certain player level or making a certain amount of progression in the game.Completing achievements earns players Gems, one of the only ways to earn this currency in the game. This creates a motivation to keep progressing and thus continue to engage with the game.

Monetization

Arena of Valor is very similar to League of Legends in terms of currencies and things players can buy. As a golden rule, players cannot buy Gold, Gems or Experience, as these are earned through engaging with the game. However, players can buy accelerators which double the amount you receive each day in order to close the gap with existing high-level players. What's important to note is that Arena of Valor is NOT pay-to-win. Though characters are at a slight disadvantage when not fully equipped with Runes, once characters are fully loaded up, matches are determined by skill and strategy and not who has spent more money. A skilled player who has not spent a cent can easily beat someone who has dumped over $10K into the game.

 A list of the primary items and currencies that can be purchased / acquired in the game.

A list of the primary items and currencies that can be purchased / acquired in the game.

The premium currency in the game are Vouchers and buying these allows the player to purchase any of the options in the Voucher shop, or convert their vouchers into a currency that allows them to e.g. Magic Crystals.

There is also a Gem Shop which allows players to buy very similar items to the Voucher shop but using Gems instead. However, Gems are only acquired through Chests, Achievements and the End of Season rewards.

 The first voucher purchase a player makes is incentivized with a special offer. Players are given a free hero when they make any Voucher purchase, which makes it very tempting to do so.  

The first voucher purchase a player makes is incentivized with a special offer. Players are given a free hero when they make any Voucher purchase, which makes it very tempting to do so.
 

Heroes

Players have two primary meta motivations to playing Arena of Valor. To collect and acquire all of the Heroes on offer and to learn and master them all via optimized tactics and loadouts. An endeavor that is essentially impossible and that offers enough gameplay variety to last several  lifetimes.

 There are already a vast number of different characters of 6 class types: Tanks, Warriors, Assassins, Mages, Archers and Support.  

There are already a vast number of different characters of 6 class types: Tanks, Warriors, Assassins, Mages, Archers and Support.
 

As a result, acquiring Heroes is one of the most popular currency spends with many heroes already in the game, and many more likely to be introduced when looking at the Chinese version of the game.

 Arena of Valor is introducing a range of licenced characters into the game starting with Batman. The Chinese version has many characters from several different licences that could also come over to the Western version. 

Arena of Valor is introducing a range of licenced characters into the game starting with Batman. The Chinese version has many characters from several different licences that could also come over to the Western version. 

Most interestingly of all, licenced characters are appearing in the game, starting with DC Comics characters such as Batman and Joker. This could be a huge incentive for players to download and play in the West and a good way to separate the product from League of Legends. It also improves the accessibility and marketing costs of the game. Marketing with known heroes is cheaper and players are likely to invest more time to learn to play with their favorite heroes not to mention that they kinda know how to play with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

 Every week, Arena of Valor has up to 6 heroes available to try and play with for free.

Every week, Arena of Valor has up to 6 heroes available to try and play with for free.

The game also has a free hero rotation system, which is a staple part of MOBAs and a great mechanism for getting people invested in the game to up-sell them on cool heroes they don't own yet. It also keeps the game fresh by offering a new set of heroes every week while locking the previous ones. Heroes on rotation can be picked and used by any player, even if they don't own the hero. Heroes are desirable not only because they look cool, but because the gameplay they offer can be unique thanks to their special abilities. This means that using a new hero allows you to experience the game in a fresh way and acts as a way to retain players' interest in the title.

Players can also try out characters by opening a Hero Trial pack which will give them a day’s trial for a random character, or 5 gems if they already own that character. This is an item that is given out for completing 6 battles a day, so is a low-cost item to give away for the developer but has high-impact for players.

The Content pipeline for the game consists of new Heroes and Skins added to the game regularly. Heroes are teased in-game and on Facebook to get players excited.

 MOBAs rely on creating new characters to sell to players over time. This can take up a lot of time in terms of development and balancing, but given the team size on AoV, is unlikely to be a problem long-term.

MOBAs rely on creating new characters to sell to players over time. This can take up a lot of time in terms of development and balancing, but given the team size on AoV, is unlikely to be a problem long-term.

In League of Legends, there was a tendency a few years ago for new Heroes to be overly powerful in their first few weeks but are toned down later, possibly to incentivize sales of the Hero. However, that practice no longer seems to be the case in LoL and the similarly it doesn’t seem to be the case in AoV yet.

Skins

 The game has multiple skins in the game, some of which look really cool and give some characters an entirely different and cooler visual appearance. 

The game has multiple skins in the game, some of which look really cool and give some characters an entirely different and cooler visual appearance. 

Each Hero has multiple skins that change the look  of the hero. Some are really cool and desirable, but are much more expensive, or can only be acquired through the Gacha system.


Skins are often thought of by hardcore players as a “fair” monetization system. If you see an opponent with a fancy skin, you know they have spent money, but can also be assured that it has no impact on the end result of the battle as there is no competitive advantage for using a skin.

The Gacha

What modern game would be complete without a Gacha system? An intermediary currency known as Magic Crystals is used to play the Lucky Draw, with Crystals being purchased via spending Vouchers or rewarded through events and missions.

 Unlike PC MOBA games, Arena of Valor has a Gacha system. Some exotic skins heroes are placed here, which creates motivation to play it and expands the monetization capacity of the game. 

Unlike PC MOBA games, Arena of Valor has a Gacha system. Some exotic skins heroes are placed here, which creates motivation to play it and expands the monetization capacity of the game. 

Players can win heroes, skins, rare Arcana or soft currencies. Some skins can only be acquired through the Gacha system, which means that the maximum theoretical spend for the game is dramatically increased due to the uncertain nature of what rewards will be attained.

Progression System - Arcana

Arena of Valor features a progression system known as Arcana which is very similar to the Rune system in League of Legends. As you progress through the game, heroes can be equipped with Arcana which improves their base values. New slots are unlocked every time the player levels up, and the player can also gain access to multiple Arcana pages. Only one page is active at a time, but it allows the player to fast switch between loadouts which are shared across heroes.

  The Arcana Pool is used to make Hero stats stronger.   

The Arcana Pool is used to make Hero stats stronger.
 

Arcana exists in 3 levels which are awarded from chests, battles and daily quests. Level I Arcana has a relatively minor impact and is given our rather freely, whereas level II and III arcana is much harder to get hold of. Players can also sell their unwanted or excess Arcana and use that money (or money they have earned through other means) to purchase Arcana from the shop.

 Arcana can be purchased from the shop, and excess Arcana can be sold for Gold to spend on other items in the game economy.  Arcana Prices Arcana Level I = 10 Gold / Sell for 1 Gold Arcana Level II = 200 Gold / Sell for 20 Gold Arcana Level III = 2000 Gold / Sell for 200 Gold

Arcana can be purchased from the shop, and excess Arcana can be sold for Gold to spend on other items in the game economy.

Arcana Prices
Arcana Level I = 10 Gold / Sell for 1 Gold
Arcana Level II = 200 Gold / Sell for 20 Gold
Arcana Level III = 2000 Gold / Sell for 200 Gold

The Rune system in League of Legends has been criticised by a number of its players. Though it works as a progression system, it also creates a big divide. After all a hero has been equipped with 30 level 3 Arcana slots is going to be way more powerful than a level 1 hero who has no slots equipped. This means that at the top level, players will either have to fork out in order to get a complete set or runes or grind like crazy to get enough gold to get all the Arcana they want. However, because of the gold cap in the game, this will take notably longer to do than in a PC MOBA.

 Equipping Arcana improves Heroes by increasing stats or giving them new passive abilities, e.g. gaining life when damaging another hero.

Equipping Arcana improves Heroes by increasing stats or giving them new passive abilities, e.g. gaining life when damaging another hero.

One neat caveat of the system design used in Arena of Valoris that the game can shower players with low-level Arcana from daily rewards, login bonuses, and chests. This makes the player feel like they are getting lots of cool equipment to use, whereas in reality this only boosts them in the early part of their player lifecycle, as more expensive items need to be acquired at higher levels.

Ranked Seasons

One of the primary motivations to play the game is to play for a ranked position on a leaderboard, either as an individual or as a team.

  • Seasons last 3 months

  • There are 6 tiers with 3 brackets in each tier.

  • Points are awarded for victories and lost for defeats. There are also bonus points awarded for win streaks.

  • There is a promotion and demotion system.

  • Teams can enter together, but players have to be within two season ranks of one another.

  • Prizes are given away at the end of every season, depending on the tier a player is in.

  • This the mode that hardcore players engage with the most.

Unlike in League of Legends, players only need to reach level 5 and heroes do not need to be maxed out to play. This can make matches favour paying players at lower ranks, although this averages out at higher ranks where most players have either paid for Arcana or have grinded all slots for free.

Social

The game currently has a few social features, which are likely to be expanded on over time. Each player has a friends list of up to 200 players and can add friends after a battle or by ID. Once per day, you can gift gold to another player. This gold doesn’t come from your supply so there is no reason not to do it.

A “Friendship Points” system is also used with friends, which increases based on how many times you help each other out in a battle of gift gold. It also deteriorates over time if you stop gifting gold or logging on / playing. This encourages players to get in touch with each other and motivate one another to keep playing and progressing.  

 The Chinese version of the game has a mentoring system which provides rewards and items to both new and old players. A Mentorship score is used between the two players, much like the Friend score, with the score increasing based on progression the newer player makes, e.g. reaching certain player levels or achieving certain ranks in Ranked play.

The Chinese version of the game has a mentoring system which provides rewards and items to both new and old players. A Mentorship score is used between the two players, much like the Friend score, with the score increasing based on progression the newer player makes, e.g. reaching certain player levels or achieving certain ranks in Ranked play.

AoV has a Guilds system, with up to 150 people being part of a guild. The current implementation is rather strange as guilds have a preparation period when they are created meaning that there aren’t many guilds out there to join. However, this may be done during Soft Launch to control the number that is being made.

Currently, there is only one advantage to being part of a guild. Players earn a gold bonus during every match based on how many people are in the Guild. This encourages guilds to stay active and to work together so they can increase their guild size to earn even more gold.
 

Community

Something that all MOBA games have in common is a strong relationship between developer and community. Arena of Valor is no different, both in the East and the Western versions of the game.

 Tencent themselves recognize the importance of fostering a strong community around their games. Over 90% of content is created on Social Media is by players.

Tencent themselves recognize the importance of fostering a strong community around their games. Over 90% of content is created on Social Media is by players.

The game already has official Facebook and Twitter pages with an active forum. A Community Manager is already in place and the developers are reaching out to player concerns and questions regularly. 

 The communtiy team recently ran an impromptu leaderboard to reward players who were trying out Batman.

The communtiy team recently ran an impromptu leaderboard to reward players who were trying out Batman.

With a hardcore game such as a MOBA players are often very passionate and have something to say. Giving them a forum to voice their opinion and acknowledging them is a huge part of continuing growth and word-of-mouth. Tencent has done an incredible job in keeping their players happy, and it's been rewarded with a lucrative and sticky game as a result. 
 

A Mobile Game for the eSports Generation

 League of Legends frequently runs it's finals in Madison Square Garden, New York and can fill out the entire arena. An incrdible testament to the eSports appeal of hit competitieve games. 

League of Legends frequently runs it's finals in Madison Square Garden, New York and can fill out the entire arena. An incrdible testament to the eSports appeal of hit competitieve games. 

One of the key reasons for the success of MOBA games as a genre has been their incredible ability to get thousands of fans around the world to watch the games being played online and creating an elite tier of player who competes for big prizes. Supercell is trying to achieve something similar at the moment with Clash Royale tournaments and Hearthstone has already done well in using streamed tournaments to push monthly user rates up. In China, this is already a key element of Tencent's success with multiple tournaments and competitions set up for the game.

 More incredible stats from the Chinese version of the game. Almost 5m people a day watch footage of the King Pro-League setup for the game.

More incredible stats from the Chinese version of the game. Almost 5m people a day watch footage of the King Pro-League setup for the game.

There's been a lot of debate in the West as to the viability of mobile eSports, but Arena of Valor surely proves that in China at least, it's a very real thing. It may yet take a while for it to gain as much popularity in the West but if PC games are anything to go by, it's only a matter of time. It's worth noting that Tencent held a huge event and live stream for the game at Games Com, the biggest consumer games show in the world this year.

Tencent held a live tournament at Games Com 2017 to showcase the game.

The Year of the Mobile MOBA?

MOBAs have been around on mobile for at least 4 years, but it seems more than ever that the West is primed for a mobile MOBA hit that breaks into the elusive top 10 grossing games. Asia is leading the way, but it now looks like Apple's decision to increase screen sizes of their devices starting with the iPhone 6 has meant that games with a more PC-like experience are suitable for mobile devices. This also means that games that would have traditionally been hits on PC are making the jump to mobile as well.

MOBACompetition.PNG

There is a slew of MOBA games on the market right now, all fighting it out for the category that never really grew on mobile. I could have selected from literally 20+ games, but notable titles include Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (Moonton), Heroes Arena (uCool),  Heroes of Order & Chaos (Gameloft) and Moba Legends (Kick 9). Some of these titles are already appearing in the top 100 grossing games in the USA, thus signalling a clear appetite for the genre from consumers. And of course, Supercell also seem to be dipping their feet into the category with their soft launch title Brawl Stars

For a MOBA to succeed it needs a critical mass of players, with literally millions of players logging in and playing every day. That means that the winner is likely to be the company that has the deepest pockets and the best infrastructure to support competition and community for a popular game. Tencent is the world's biggest publisher, making more than twice as much money as the next most successful publisher (Activision), so if a game is going to be a breakout hit, I feel that this is the game most likely to do it.

 

Will Arena of Valor Conquer the West as well?

Will this game become the first mobile MOBA to break the billion-dollar bracket? Well, the answer to that is "yes!" because this game has already done that in China. But can it do it in the West…? The answer to that is that it's unlikely but possible.

 During the early part of Arena of Valor's soft launch (when the title was known as Strike of Kings), it's revenue per install was sub-par to say the least.

During the early part of Arena of Valor's soft launch (when the title was known as Strike of Kings), it's revenue per install was sub-par to say the least.

Arena of Valor's revenue per install (RPI) during its initial soft launch a year ago was underwhelming at best. It's sub $1 was is a shadow of the $3+ the game achieves in China. However, Tencent knew they were onto a smash hit title and stuck with it, changing the name of the game, optimizing ad creative and working with their community to improve the game.

 Arena of Valor is trending at over $1 per install on iOS.

Arena of Valor is trending at over $1 per install on iOS.

The hard work paid off. The game now has a revenue per install ratio of better than $1, usually a sign of a profitable game. This might be some way off heavy hitters like Fire Emblem Heroes ($8 per install!), but remember that MOBAs make money by keeping a large number of players retained for an extremely long amount of time, and the metrics show that AoV is going some way toward achieving this.

 At the recent GameFirstHelsinki conference, Tencent revealed retention stats for the Chinese version of the game. As the game is so much fun, it results in an incredibly sticky app that retains players. Proof of the quality of the fun of the game and a major component of the game's success.

At the recent GameFirstHelsinki conference, Tencent revealed retention stats for the Chinese version of the game. As the game is so much fun, it results in an incredibly sticky app that retains players. Proof of the quality of the fun of the game and a major component of the game's success.

How to be Big in the West?

A $1 revenue per install is a great foundation, but if you are the world's biggest gaming company, it's not something to get out of bed for. Tencent has put an enormous amount of time and money into this game for a very clear reason - to try and make a billion dollar game in both North America and China. But how can they pull it off, and what steps have they taken? In my mind the 7 barriers they need to cross are:

  • Demonstrate the value proposition to potential players by positioning the game as the best MOBA on mobile.
  • Legitimize the game as an eSport.
  • Build a community
  • Be genuinely Community focused.
  • Be in it for the long run.
  • Use known high profile IP to growth hack.
  • Marketing - hit 'em big, hit 'em hard! Reach as many millennials as possible.

Given a company the size and stature of Tencent, it's no surprise to see activity in all of these areas ahead of launch. I've touched on the quality of the game a number of times during this article, but to put it into context, Tencent had Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning movie composer to compose the soundtrack for the game. One can only imagine the cost this incurred, but the reason is to reinforce the feeling of quality within the title.

THE Hans Zimmer of Hollywood fame has composed the soundtrack for the game.

The use of known IP in the title is also clear to see. In an attempt to reach mainstream audiences and to separate the title from League of Legends, Tencent has signed a deal with DC to use characters like Batman, The Joker and Wonder Woman in their title. This IP has clearly been selected to target their key market - North America.

Wonder Woman is one of a number of DC characters that can be used in Arena of Valor.

To legitimize as an eSport, Tencent has sunk a ton of money into events across the calendar year such as a tournament at Gamescom in Germany and a recent invitational in Asia. They have already convinced big eSports organizations to create teams to compete in the game. Tracing eSports investment and marketing into a provable effect in marketing is impossible, but as brand marketing, it helps keep a game in the minds of consumers and elevates a title to a certain level of quality. Which game would you play, the one where you see teams of players competing over or the title no one has heard of?

Arena of Valor has already hosted a number of tournaments worldwide despite the game being unavailable worldwide.

In terms of running the game as a community focused affair, Tencent has done a terrific job. A community manager and team have been in place since launch, with regular updates on a vast array of social media channels. The game has also been tuned in places based on customer feedback.

 Arena of Valor already has a very pro-active community approach even during Soft Launch, with regular updates and Q&A sessions.

Arena of Valor already has a very pro-active community approach even during Soft Launch, with regular updates and Q&A sessions.

Be in it for the long run. Given the game has been in Soft Launch for over 6 months, it's clear that this is a title that Tencent is likely to support for a long time, and this will be a key route to success for the game. Many players play MOBA's for years and spend very little, but they inevitably do spend on the game, be it on a new Hero, a new Skin, or some other small transaction. Most games on mobile operate on a 180 days LTV payback basis, but Tencent may be tempted to look at the game as a D360 or even D720 payback cycle. As long as they keep players in the game and in their network, they will monetize off them in the end.

Marketing - hit 'em big, hit 'em hard! Attaining critical mass will be the game's biggest problem with no WeChat to rely on. Tencent own Supercell so could utilize that network to promote their game, although this seems unlikely given their hands-off approach they take with most companies they own. I will be watching Snap Chat with an eagle eye during the festive period, as I suspect that this will be heavily used to promote the game, but so far in the mobile world, Snap Chat has proved to be lackluster at best when compared to Facebook in terms of driving mobile installs.

That leaves an expensive marketing campaign and User Acquisition, and given the use of DC character IP's in the game as well as the success seen in China it's probable that the company takes a punt on making this game a hit, despite it being a very un-Chinese business practice to do. Quite simply, Tencent is one of the few companies in the world with the pockets big enough to go into a category like this in a meaningful way.

A great recent example is Netmarble's marketing around Lineage 2: Revolution who signed a high profile Hollywood celebrity to promote the game, as well as paying a whole host of top streamers on Twitch to advertise and promote their game. So far it's paid off for them, with Lineage 2 a solid top 100 game in the USA. With Tencent securing the best possible featuring slot in the world on both platforms, I am expecting fireworks in the next few months as Tencent go for broke.

Netmarble pulled out all the stops and paid Conan O'Brian to advertise the release of their recent Lineage 2: Revolution title.

The Mobile MOBA space is getting very crowded and with Supercell's own Brawl Stars in soft launch, but everything is being done correctly to try and make the game a success, and with the resources of Tencent behind it, this game has a chance of becoming a hit. The game has a huge team on it when you combine teams in both China and the West, a proven popular game model and mobile penetration in the west has reached it's peak.

I think it’s interesting that the game doesn’t carry the League of Legends IP, given that Tencent outright own Riot games, and perhaps this hints at political problems behind the scenes between the two companies. That IP would surely have guaranteed success, but I think it says a lot about this game that I think it has a great chance even without it, and licenced IP characters are a great way to help it stand on its own two feet.

 The official mobile version of PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds is also being published by Tencent with over 12M players already pre-registering for the game.

The official mobile version of PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds is also being published by Tencent with over 12M players already pre-registering for the game.

That leaves a final question of whether the MOBA genre is capable of becoming a hit in the West on mobile? Gaming tastes are different around the world and although China and Korea have shown a tendency to accept PC style games such as Fantasy Westward Journey and Lineage (both MMORPGs) and now Arena of Valor (MOBA), it remains to be seen if the West is ready. However, it’s my opinion that gaming sophistication is just a matter of time in reaching popularity in the West.

Though simpler titles such as Candy Crush and Clash Royale are currently top dog, the rise of games such as Guns of Boom, Hearthstone and Lineage 2 indicates that in mid-core at least, the trend is to move to more sophisticated competitive gaming experiences. In fact these days, it's easy to lose the irony that one of the least used features of phones these days is to actually call someone with it, as they have instead become portable PC’s that also allows us to communicate with one another. A mobile means that you and your friends can all play a high-quality MOBA anywhere there’s an Internet connection, anytime, anywhere, which is something that PC games don’t allow you to do. And whilst PC’s might have the more hardcore audience, there is an entire generation of hardcore gamers that are growing up with just one core gaming device at their disposal - their phones.

Supercell recently hosted the Clash Royale World Finals in London in the biggest demonstration of eSports yet.

I personally think Arena of Valor will be a top 100 game and over time does have what it takes to be a top 10 grossing title, but its main competition will come from Tencent themselves! Tencent already own Supercell who have Clash Royale live and Brawl Stars in development, both titles that are clearly after the competitive PvP market. Outside of both of those titles, the biggest phenomenon in gaming in 2017 has been the rise of PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds on PC and Xbox One, which has gone from an early access development title to a 20M smash hit on multiple platforms. Tencent's eternal rival NetEase has already released no less than 3 mobile clones of the title in Soft Launch in both China and North America. The Chinese version even managed to supplant Honor of Kings in the Chinese top grossing positions! Tencent has already beaten their rivals to the punch by getting the official rights to the game with a title already in development, so truly if 2017 was the year of the mobile MOBA, then 2018 is shaping up to be the year of a spectacular Battle Royale.

Old Man Syndrome

 As of 2016, mobile games overtook console and PC as the biggest gaming platform in the world.

As of 2016, mobile games overtook console and PC as the biggest gaming platform in the world.

As a closing thought, this game makes me think about “old man syndrome” in the industry. When I was growing up, my family told me that playing games was a waste of time and nothing would ever come of it. Fast forward 15 years and it’s a billion-dollar industry that supports hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and it can be a lucrative career if you work hard and make great games. However, I find it funny to see that the same “angry old man” mentality now applies to some of my generation, even though we felt it ourselves when younger. There are still many developers around the world who have still not embraced mobile, even though as of 2016 it became not only the biggest platform in terms of revenue, but also became the most lucrative gaming platform of all time, with forecasts showing that this is only going to grow further.

 Time to lose the old man syndrome! Mobile revenues have grown year-on-year for the last 10 years and will grow further in 2017.

Time to lose the old man syndrome! Mobile revenues have grown year-on-year for the last 10 years and will grow further in 2017.

 According to the Financial Times (and cross-posted by Pocket Gamer, the Chinese version of the game has over 50M DAU.

According to the Financial Times (and cross-posted by Pocket Gamer, the Chinese version of the game has over 50M DAU.

MOBAs are a great example of this in action. They originated as a mod of Blizzard’s Warcraft 3 but became successful as Riot and Valve created their own game from it whilst Blizzard became complacent, waiting until releasing 2015’s Heroes of the Storm, which is considerably less successful than it’s rivals (even though a favorite amongst the Deconstructor of Fun writers).

Now Arena of Valor has become a billion-dollar game by being a hit mobile MOBA whilst current MOBA top-dogs Riot and Valve stay on PC rather than testing the waters on mobile. For Riot, it’s not such a problem as they are owned by Tencent, but when you consider that Arena of Valor could easily have been League of Legends mobile, it seems like a missed opportunity and one that might come back to bite them in the future. One could even argue it's a case of history repeating itself.

With big money investments at the end of 2017 by Asian powerhouses, my message to the Western games industry is to realize that we already in the maturity phase of the mobile platform and it's time to make a move now before consolidation leaves us with just a handful of key players.

 

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