The Secrets of Machine Zone's Success Part 2 - Design
This multi-part series will deconstruct Machine Zone's super successful games and look into the particular mid-core genre dominated by the company. Make sure you'll get the latest post by signing up to the weekly newsletter.
A Look at 4X Games' Design
In part 1 of this article, we defined the style of Machine Zone's games as "Mobile 4X," but how do Mobile 4X games work? While the Kabam's Kingdom of Camelot was arguably the first Mobile 4X game to achieve success on the app store, we're going to concentrate on Game of War for the bulk of this article as it's the most successful 4X game and has largely defined Machine Zone as a company.
Not Just a Game of War - A Game of Power
Many, many people churn out of Game of War during its tutorial, which is very archaic in terms of its appearance and very simple tap-tap-tap gameplay. It gets you to go through the basics but without really intuitively teaching the player why they are doing what they are doing. In fact, 4X games in general strangely don't do a good job at telling you what the game is really about.
Game of War is all about Power. And not just literally, as there is a number representing Power shoved in your face at all times, but also the nuances of power and how that is both expressed and felt in a massively multiplayer game with thousands of players playing together all at once.
Fittingly for a game set in a medieval setting, Game of War creates many "games within a game" which support a Feudal style power pyramid. In fact, if you've ever seen the TV show Game of Thrones, then there is a lot in common in terms of the relationships between Houses being akin to relationships between players in Game of War.
The game takes place on a huge map made up of various kingdoms. Each Kingdom has a Wonder which can be battled over, and then the entire world itself has a "Super Wonder" which can be battled for. The Alliance which controls the Super Wonder effectively rules the game, with the player who is the leader of that Alliance acting as the King or Queen of the game. The game structure supports this throughout as the rulers of the game can impose taxes on everyone in the game, or bestow titles on other players and Alliances.
No matter which tier players are in their life-cycle, they have an importance to the game. When starting out you might be small feed in the overall scheme of things, but you still contribute to your Kingdom with the resources you provide. As you climb the ladder you have more and more of an impact on both your Kingdom and the overall game kingdom. You may be part of an Alliance that has no chance of controlling a Wonder or Super Wonder, but you may be able to influence who does get it. This means that your support is important for those duking it out and means that negotiation between alliances is extremely important. I will touch on the true strength of social systems in the game in a later section, but the point I want to get across about 4X games is that the dream of being powerful and ruling the roost is incredibly strong as an emotional motivation to play. It's the central emotional driver on which the game is built around and supports.
As you ascend the game, the feeling of seeing other people literally do your bidding to court your favor is extremely addictive and powerful, just as it is in real life. They say that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" and if you create a game that facilitates that megalomaniacal power struggle and allows you to pay to get ahead... well perhaps it helps explain from the very outset how this game is so successful.
A Persistent World
Game of War calls itself an MMO strategy game and it's not lying. The game is a huge massively multiplayer online persistent world where things are constantly going on. Every action in the game is broadcast to everyone, meaning that every attack, every march and every trade can be seen. The world map itself is also huge which means that the 4X mechanics of exploration is there for everyone to experience. From a technical perspective to support this level of concurrency is really impressive and it gives the game a real feeling of being alive at all times.
This also means that many important game mechanics are tied to the game world. Players control a stronghold which represents their city and people. This is positioned on the game map and the location of it is very important. Making an attack or traveling somewhere means that your troops or a hero can be seen going on a march in the world map and it takes time to reach the destination. This means that being in a location that is close to people who can help to defend you or close to natural resources is very important.
Players can also control resource tiles that provide additional resources for the city economy and enforce the exploit mechanic of 4X games. Whilst on a march or traveling, your own city can be attacked, or you can be attacked mid-march. It leads to all manner of interesting situations and mechanics. You can even "fake" a march against an opponent and then march back to march to someone else. And seeing all of this interplay in real-time makes for fascinating emergent gameplay which is all viewable as it occurs in the game.
Game Loop and Core Systems
At its heart Game of War and its follow-up titles use familiar gameplay. Players own a Stronghold which represents their city of people within a vast world. Worlds are divided into Kingdoms of players and it's the player's aspiration to get more powerful by upgrading their city, army, and hero to eventually accumulate real tangible power in the world view.
Once players have completed the tutorial, they can undertake up to four core actions at one time. They can build, research, train troops and craft in parallel, but can only do one of each at a time. Some games, such as Mobile Strike, allow the player to hire an additional builder to multi-build, but let's assume one for now. Thus a player's most basic session would involve coming into the game, setting up each of these four actions spending some of their resources, requesting help and then leaving. Once one of the actions have been completed they can come into the game to setup another action to progress through the game optimally.
Pay to Progress
Timers and impatience are the oldest and strongest of monetization mechanics in freemium gaming. In Game of War, once carrying out an action, it takes time to complete it. Initially, timers can be skipped for free or are very short to ease the player into the game. But as a player progresses, the timers will slowly increase taking days, months or even years to complete.
The player has a few options available to them to avoid waiting for too long. They can request help from their alliance members. The loop of requesting and giving help to alliance members is a core social interaction with huge value making alliances necessary to progress while also harnessing the power of social reciprocation and altruism to make players co-operate and build bonds between them. This encourages players to be online and playing the game as much as possible throughout the day. This is a great mechanic for building up engagement and meaningful interactions between alliance members.
Players can also use speed-up items to speed up the timers in the game. Speed-ups are thrown about liberally in the game through rewards and from in-app purchase bundles and various kickbacks. These speed-ups are a clever piece of game design because they give the player an enormous power into how they want to play during their session.
It's very easy in Game of War to have short sessions by just queuing up basic actions and waiting for them to complete to adhere to the "many small sessions per day" model that is proven to work well in F2P. However, it also offers players the opportunity to play for very long sessions as boosts that have been saved up can be used in succession. Perfect for playing on the weekend when players have more time on their hands. And of course what F2P game would not allow you to pay to skip the timer altogether? Game of War offers that opportunity too, in case players are in a rush to move through the game quickly.
Game Loops and Gameplay
At the beginning of the game, players are given a multitude of quests to complete to help them level up their stronghold and hero to get more powerful and set them up with the basics they need to play the game. Resources are generated every hour and players can choose many strategies as to how they want to progress and expand. They can choose to boost their economy to generate more resources to help fund their Alliance or themselves, or could choose to invest in the military side of the game to get stronger, potentially working with Alliance members who will help fund their efforts to min-max an alliance economy.
Like many mid-core games, there is also player-versus-player (pvp) element, which contains the real elder game and interactions with the Kingdom Map, other players, and alliances. Something which I find truly fascinating is that most of these games have no actual battle that they can see, they are just sent a battle report. This probably harks back to web world where budgets and technical know-how meant that making a battle game was a tricky endeavor but on mobile, it perhaps saves teaching the player about another level of game complexity.
Lack of visual makes the game incredibly "meta" as players have to imagine how the battle played out, and although battle reports are sent to players it is hard to understand what they can do to optimize their battle performance. This adds a lot of hidden depth and mastery in terms of optimizing combat performance but makes the game even more complicated to learn initially, so there is a trade off made here.
Another core mechanic in the game is that of developing the player's hero. Players are given a hero randomly, to begin with, who represents the player's general in the game world. The hero can earn skills over time and can be equipped with gear to make them stronger. Crafting itself is a super deep system into which players can literally spend millions of pounds and hours to get the best items to make them more powerful in the game. Players can also capture and even execute enemy heroes to gain buffs in their war efforts making for some awesome social dynamics. Think Jamie Lannister being captured by the Starks in Game of Thrones and the negotiation by Catelyn Stark to set him free.
Wonders and Territory Control
It could be said that the true elder game of Game of War is about territory control and the passage of power that comes from it. On the map owning certain tiles offers additional resources or powers and none is more obvious than Wonders and particularly the Super Wonder, which decides who will be Emperor or Empress of Game of War. Opening once a month, the top players and alliances battle over a 4 day period to see who will rule the real, with the winner being determined based on total time held during the 4 day period. Given such prestige, many players teleport to the Super Wonder in hopes of holding it for just one second and get a screen shot of their name as Emperor, making it a mad free-for-all.
Becoming the ruler of the game had huge implications. They can bestow titles and buffs / debuffs on other players and alliances. They can even set a tax rate that every single player in the game must contribute to. Thus being a popular King for the "lesser" players can mean a longer time on the throne... but remember there is always someone out there who wants the top spot!
The who sequence of attacking to own a Super Wonder feels like a huge and epic real life war with a lot of teamwork and planning required. It feels a bit like the Game of Thrones episode where Stannis Baratheon tries to take Kings Landing and has to fight against a joint force of Lannisters and Tyrells. Many alliances are made or broken during this period and it really showcases the deep social gameplay that lies at the heart of Game of War and 4X games in general. Take a look at this detailed account from a player who participated to get a good idea of what's involved.
Just like a real feudal war, Game of War also has a massive harsh and steep learning curve to its core game. Losses in this game are permanent so losing troops or a hero can usually cripple you completely, unless you are willing to pay to recover your losses. It's definitely resulted in me churning from the game a few times over. I find this mechanic very interesting when compared to a game such as Clash of Clans. It's super hardcore but it really does give you the feeling of power as knowing you could destroy someone so totally that over 3 months of their playtime is rendered moot in just minutes is a very rewarding feeling and ties into what this game is all about - power.
It's also a big reason why the game monetizes so well. After being zeroed you will be offered packs and hero revives to get you back into the game and if you've seen months worth of progress it's really easy to succumb to expensive packs to get you back into the mix or even to give you more power than the person who attacked you to get your revenge. It makes the game completely pay-to-win, but one could argue that this is reflective of life itself. After all, those with the most money often do find themselves in positions of power...
Depth + Complexity
Whilst just scratching the surface of what these games have to offer, I hope the thing that becomes immediately apparent is just how deep these games are. In fact, I would go as far as saying that a game like Starcraft on the PC is probably easier to understand than a game such as Game of War. The success of these titles shows that there is a real tangible market for complex games on mobile and that the mobile audience is becoming more game savvy. The current top 10 grossing games list ranges from super-deep and complex games such as Game of War and Mobile Strike to mass-market with Pokemon Go and Candy Crush Saga. In my mind, this is a proof that the audience has expanded to such a point that there are multiple ways to succeed.
I would also argue that one compelling reason to play a 4X game is that the level of mastery is such that players get a lot of enjoyment about sharing their knowledge with each other, tutoring newer players and trying to think of ways to min/max game systems to achieve an edge or advantage.
An Infinitely Scalable Economy
It may sound like a first-world problem, but a genuine worry for developers for a live-service game is how to prevent players from completing and having access to everything. Once you've got everything you can lose motivation to play and pay which is bad for business and kills the motivation of others to play on.
In Game of War, persistent losses solve some of these problems as players can literally wipe out the progress of other players almost completely. However smart players will often not attack other players who can do that to them, leading to players become pacifists with one another. The game does often run big events such as Kill-Events and Wonder battling to try and force players into losses, but it's just one technique used.
A common way developers look to solve this is to introduce power creep by increasing numbers in the game. E.g. you can make more Stronghold levels, stronger gear, more levels, etc. What usually stops this from being a catch-all solution to all problems is that it requires more assets to be developed and broadens the gap between players at the start of the game and players at the end of the game. For example, during one spell I played the game the top player world had around 2 Billion Power. These days that is small fry and I would have to do a lot of work to be competitive.
Game of War does solve these issues by scaling up their economy and power level but do so in a very clever way. The whole game and its infrastructure have been made such that the live service is easy to operate and balance. The game is a thin-client meaning that it's run entirely on the server so almost any device can connect to the game and meaning that new content and features can be rolled out very quickly without having to get players to upgrade their version. The game also appears to be made entirely in HTML5 which means that although the graphical fidelity may be lacking compared to some of its rivals, it's super easy to make new content. The lack of graphics actually help the game in some ways as to make new items such as gear and tech upgrades does not take a lot of production time to do.
The lack of a battle game also helps here. As the game is purely a spreadsheet crunching numbers, new units and battle balance are easy to do. The monetization model of the game (which I'll go through in details in the next post) also means that players can be offered tailored packages to boost them up in asymmetrical power levels, which is supported by the game economy and structure. Overall it's very cleverly thought out offering both super deep sinks but also allowing for a lot of head room to keep pace with a ravenous and big spending audience.
Given that Machine Zone pivoted from a company making Social Networks to freemium games, their chat and social layer built into their game is second to none. During the game's beta, they introduced a real time chat translation tool that players were rewarded with virtual currency for to help complete. The end result is that when you play the game every single message from anywhere else in the world is translated into the language you are playing in. MZ realized that for a game that was built around being truly social if you came into the game and saw a lot of talk in another language, it would act as a barrier to your enjoyment and understanding. Although the system is not perfect, being able to communicate to a decent degree of sophistication with anyone else in the world at any time makes the game feel alive.
Game of War also heavily leans in on Alliance Features and getting players into one as soon as possible. The game uses your location to try to find alliances that are within your geo/time zone so you will have an easier time finding friends to help you play the game. The game also pushes you into an Alliance very quickly - usually during the first session to build up the real support network of other players who can help you.
The game also has a "kick-back" system. If anyone in your Alliance buys an IAP bundle, everyone else in the Alliance gets something. Although this can lead to some players "riding the wave" for freebies, most Alliances are self-regulating so if you aren't paying, you better be fulfilling another important role and be online a lot as Alliances can't afford to carry dead weight. It also means that you are put under a certain pressure to spend to be seen to be contributing to an alliance. There is even the ability to purchase gifts for other players which ties-in very nicely to the rest of the social framework the game creates.
The game also has an absolute ton of Alliance specific features that help build out the gameplay. With Alliance Cities, players have goals that the entire Alliance can work towards. Alliances can trade items and resources between each other. Alliances can directly message or private message one another to keep each other in the loop. The list just goes on and on and it makes the game super social and connects every player within the alliance to each other. If there is a game that has more features than Game of War, I am yet to find it.
When you add up all of the features and frameworks that Game of War has you end up with a recipe for one of the killer reasons for its success. The game is incredibly social and as a result introduces a ton of emergent gameplay that the players themselves determine.
As an example, Alliances often have differing roles between players. One may act as a banker to move currencies around the alliance to keep them safe. Some players may act as "farmers" who deliberately tune their economy to produce a ton of resources at the expense of military power to help fund the rest of the alliance. But doing so means that the rest of the alliance has to protect those players to keep their resources intact! Some players will act as scouts who find information out about the game world and report information back to the Alliance so that the alliance as a whole can organize their military maneuvers. Often times an Alliance will send out a decoy army so that they can issue a real attack against a completely different target.
As a result of all of this, gameplay can vary from kingdom-to-kingdom with a lot of the game actually becoming a meta-game of subterfuge, politics, and planning. Some Kingdoms have NPA's (non-aggression pacts) where players can't attack each other or capture heroes. Break these rules and the top dogs in each Kingdom will send in their forces and wipe you out. Other Kingdoms are free-for-alls where anything goes and players can attack each other at will. Alliances leaders and lieutenants are thus in close contact with one another as often the enemy of your enemy can become your friend! There is also often drama when big personalities from big Alliances have a falling out and start their own Alliance and take some of the original alliance with them to create the equivalent of a civil war. It's the closest you can get to living in a real life version of Game of Thrones.
Gabe Leydon has gone on record to say that the players in their game are the ones that really make the rules and even the gameplay, they just provide the infrastructure to do it, and I can totally believe this to be the case. Emergent gameplay comes from the decisions players themselves make, and if they decide in one kingdom that no one is allowed to capture heroes, then that's how it will be, regardless of any incentive on offer to break the Kingdom rules!
Emergent Gameplay is a dream for any developer to achieve. It means that a game can become evergreen as players can literally play forever. Combined with an economic and power system that is literally infinitely scalable and it's easy to see why Game of War has been a success for so long and why it can continue to be a success for many years to come. It's real goal now is to keep the long-term invested players they have and to try and address the issue of new players being so far away from becoming competitive that they churn out and see a declining DAU. If there is one thing you take away from this look at 4X games as a reason for their ongoing success, emergent social gameplay is it.
Machine Zone's games are the culmination of multiple deep systems that are in synergy with one another and that support the overall goal of trying to become the most powerful player in the game. The feeling of power is absolute in the game, allowing the top players to bully other people and put huge pressure on them to keep up to stay competitive. The structure of the game has resulted in an infrastructure where players themselves determine the dynamics and rules of the in-game world, resulting in a very sticky experience for those that commit to it.
In our next article, we take a closer look at the monetization systems in Machine Zone games, which are notorious for having players spend insane amounts of money, including a player that is rumored to have spent over $1 Million in the game.