AFK Arena - Hail to the New King of RPGs

AFK Arena - Hail to the New King of RPGs

Asia is one of the most influential and consequential geos in a game’s overall global success. However there is a persistent stigma: Asian developers struggle in the West and Western developers struggle in Asia. This has gone on for decades, with the two groups being influenced by each other, yet struggling to operate their games successfully across this cultural divide.

Yet something has changed in the last years as mobile free to play has matured and become global.

According to AppAnnie revenue estimates for 2018, within the US, 20% of revenue is coming from China and Japan, on the rise. This may seem small, but it has been a slowly growing trend which was mostly dominated by domestic developers. What’s driving this trend is looking at the changes that are happening in the Top Grossing charts. Many of the new games that are gaining ground are coming from developers like Lilith, Firecraft Studios (Matchington Mansion), FunPlus (King of Avalon, Guns of Glory) and IGG (Lords Mobile). The shakeups on the AppStore are increasingly likely to be from China over the US.

During the past year Lilith has been on a roll!  data from the best of the best -  Sensor Tower

During the past year Lilith has been on a roll!

data from the best of the best - Sensor Tower

In a single quarter AFK Arena has been able to blast through the ultra competitive competition of turn-based RPGs in US capturing 6% of all revenue and 24% of installs. A push that is very likely to continue…

data from the one and only - GameRefinery

Lilith is a company you may be familiar with. Founded in 2013 in Shanghai, they’ve been focused on F2P RPG games like Soul Hunters (Previously called DOTA Legend, cloned by uCool to create Heroes Charge, until Blizzard stopped them). In May 2017 Lilith launched its first strategy game, Art of Conquest and followed it with a second smash hit of a strategy game, Rise of Kingdoms (which deserves its own deconstruct) in July of 2018. Little less than a year later, in April 2019 Lilith globally launched AFK Arena going three-for-three in three years.

Lilith has gradually grown to be a dominant F2P developer globally, and one which developers should take note. AFK Arena shows their strengths with:

  • Best in class merchandising

  • Best in class gacha-set design and progression systems

  • A faster progression curve to the late game retention features

  • Smart choices to core gameplay design and progression to feel different yet last longer

This deconstruction will dive deeper into the individual systems, with a slightly different spin than ever before on Deconstructor of Fun. You see, all of us were giant fans of this game and thus we decided to divide and conquer the deconstruction of one of the favourite games of 2019.

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This deconstruction is written by: Michail Katkoff, Adam Telfer, Florian Ziegler & Alexandre Mcmillan


Core Loop and Gameplay

AFK Arena is a best in class turn-based-RPG, which builds upon the standard best practices of the genre while innovating lightly in the core gameplay and core loop. Similar to Heroes Charge, Puzzles and Dragons, Empires and Puzzles, Idle Heroes, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, Legendary, and Marvel Strike Force. (See our full breakdown of the RPG category: These Three RPG Categories Will Grow Further).

Note that I didn’t mention Tap Titans or Nonstop Knight - don’t be fooled - this isn’t an Idle game. How AFK Arena is marketed and played is very different, however. “AFK” and its branding focuses around an Idle RPG game like Tap Titans or Nonstop Knight. The ads even try to look exactly like an idle game. Yet misleading marketing aside, the game only has a sprinkle of Idle elements in it.  The game has auto-battling, fast initial progression, and has some automated economies - but this game’s business model and retention curve is all built around common turn-based-RPG tropes we’ve analyzed in the past.




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Like Heroes Charge and Galaxy of Heroes, the core loop of the game is about battling to receive rewards which are used to level up your squad. The entire game is focused on this loop, incentivizing the player in different ways to stretch their collection to the brink. You should be familiar with this core loop - it’s in pretty much every gacha-driven game on the market. What AFK has done differently is made a far more “idle” feeling battle by automating it.

Core Battle: Fighting on Auto-Pilot

afk.gif

The Core Battle is simple and requires very little input. Similar to Heroes Charge (and DOTA Legends, Lilith’s original game) - the battle is automated and fast. All heroes attack automatically, with the only input needed being to choose if/when to trigger their special attack. If you don’t even want to bother with choosing when to trigger, you can tap the “AUTO” button to auto-trigger these attacks. If you enjoy the collection aspect of RPGs more than you like the strategic decision making, this game is meant for you.


This game really is “AFK” and to be honest, it actually feels nice after playing all of those RPG’s that require tons of input (looking at Glu’s Disney Sorcerers’ Arena). The game feels very passive, and built for mobile. Low interactions with little to no attention demand. The strategy is completely focused on who you’re bringing into the battle with you and to some extent, how you lay out your heroes. It’s not dependent on players’ ability to trigger the abilities on time or having to make every single attacking decision in a turn-based RPG. Your attention is only needed every once in awhile - so it’s great for being distracted during meetings or zoning out while watching Netflix.

More of the same faction heroes give additional bonuses to the team.

More of the same faction heroes give additional bonuses to the team.

And as with all the RPGs, some factions are better against other.

And as with all the RPGs, some factions are better against other.

Besides statistical advantage, the game has a pretty basic element system. 6 faction types, which give a 25% bonus. This is pretty meagre in comparison to the competition. Contest of Champions have 7 types offset from each other, Galaxy of Heroes has a library of tags, Fire Emblem Heroes has 3 major types with 3 minor types each making 9 overall factions in comparison. Their faction system is good, but more complexity here could help them create more pressure to have a wider collection.

What’s interesting is that AFK explicitly incentivizes a flat team make-up more than most. As seen above, getting a team together of 5 of the same faction creates a damage and health bonus of 25%, enough to offset the bonus damage by a countering type (or give an additional incentive to have a team of 5 for each faction type). The game is less about trying to discover what the best team is, and more explicit with what it wants you to do: have multiple teams with all members being from the same faction. This is far more heavy handed than most western turn-based-RPG.

Each hero has a set of passive and active skills, which unlock and improve with level up.

Each hero has a set of passive and active skills, which unlock and improve with level up.

Each hero then is further broken down by the abilities and stats they have. In typical CCRPG fashion, there is some intrinsic synergy between heroes. For example, Saveas (above) has abilities which cause him to lose HP but increase DPS output substantially. So of course pairing him nearby with a healer is a good thing. This isn’t genre-leading in terms of the number of builds or how complex they are: they have Tanks, DPS, and Support roles in the common methods. So again - this is simple, but not genre leading in terms of promoting a wide collection. Instead the faction system is what’s used to incentivize multiple teams.

Gameplay Modes: Each Support the Core Loop

Where it gets more interesting is in the variety of modes, and how each put pressure on the player to have a strong but wide collection of heroes.

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1. Campaign (PvE) — the Progression Milestone

The “main” progression of the game, seen right when you log in. Think of it as a “saga” map, but unlike all of the other turn-based-RPGs, when you’ve completed a level in AFK you can never replay it. This mode is not meant for farming, its meant for progression.

Core Loop Pressure: The difficulty of each level increases linearly, spiking at boss levels. This creates stoppage points that slowly push you to have a strong team of 5 heroes. This functions as both the onboarding mode and the overarching milestone marker of the game.

Pacing: You can play this mode as often as you’d like… until your team isn’t good enough to progress. This gives the game a very fast progression feeling in the beginning, which turns into a clear progression block by the mid game. Eventually you aren’t making progress in this mode and are instead pushed to play in other modes (or pay)

2. Idle (PvE) — the Appointment Mechanic

This is the automated (idle) portion of the game. At the bottom of the screen (see “2” above) your recently used team will automatically be fighting an endless mob of enemies. This functions as the “Idle” part of the game -- when you’re not playing, your heroes are still earning EXP, Coins and Weapons. This functions as your appointment mechanic - eventually your chest will become full with all this automatically collected rewards.

Core Loop Pressure: the rewards are dependant on how far you progress in the campaign, so it’s always the best idea to have your best team play as far as possible in the campaign before leaving them to grind it out while you sleep.

Pacing: This functions more as your “come back” or “appointment” mechanic -- this is what creates the compelling push notifications, reminding you to open up the game


3. Peaks Of Time (PvE) — Secondary Progression Milestone

Opened up late in progression, this takes a page right out of common in-game events from most CCRPG games. Each quest can only be completed once, so this acts just as an additional vector of progression of players besides the PvE Campaign.

Core Loop Pressure: this mode is all scripted, and does not scale with your level -- so similar to PvE Campaigns, this mode is paced to slowly increase the pressure on your top team.

Pacing: No energy -- pacing is only based on the stats of the opposing team.

4. Labyrinth — Collection Pressure

Labyrinth is similar to “Galactic War” in SW:GOH, or gauntlet mode in other CCRPGS. However in AFK, this mode is unlocked very early in progression (which is a great decision). In this mode, you are tasked to go as far into the labyrinth as you can every 48 hours. Whenever a hero of yours dies, they can no longer be used for the rest of the event.

The Labyrinth has its own shop as well -- rewards which can only be earned if you are engaged in this mode. This solidifies the value proposition of this mode to the player -- in order to access the high quality rewards, you need to engage

Core Loop Pressure: Because of the perma-death -- this pressures the player to bring in the widest collection of heroes possible. The more heroes you bring in that are levelled up, the farther you’ll go. This includes even your “garbage” heroes -- they can help out even in the beginning.

One interesting design they have here is relics -- every few stages you have an option to choose one of 3 relics that remain with you throughout the event. These typically benefit certain types of hereos -- pushing you to use more of them while the event is active.

Pacing: The event resets every 48 hours, so this is all about the time pressure to go as far as you can with your relics.

5. King’s Tower — Race to the Finish

Similar to Peaks of Time and Campaign, this mode is another permanent progression mode. Players attempt to reach the “top” of the tower to get more and more rewards.

Core Loop Pressure: Similar to Campaign and Peaks, this is about pulling together the top team you can.

Pacing: Similar to Campaign and Peaks, this mode can be played endlessly, but eventually you won’t be able to win against a tougher team.

6. Arena — PvP

Similar to Arena in SWGOH, this mode is all about working your way up a leaderboard. Players compete against offline versions of other player’s teams, attempting to work their way up the ladder before the seasonal reset (14 days)

Improving from SWGOH, they have multiple arenas running at the same time -- allowing players to choose which competition they are more likely to be competitive within, and even allowing players to spectate the “Legends Championship” as it runs -- giving players more teasing of the top teams in the game.

Core Loop Pressure: small resource rewards. No clear pressure.

Pacing: This is the only mode which is paced with a currency.


7. Bounty Board — Back Bench Utility

A longer timer system which allows you to put your collection to good use. Each bounty contains a reward (seen as 20 gems above) with a requirement for 2 heroes. These heroes can be any level, but must be apart of certain factions.

Core Loop Pressure: This is a good way to incentivize players to keep even their under levelled heroes, just so they can send heroes on these bounties and go on as many bounties in parallel as possible

Pacing: Bounties are longer timer exercises, so you’re typically only sending out heroes 1-2 times per day, in large batches in parallel. This is a major appointment mechanic, driving the player to come back each day.

So overall the modes are: 3 permanent progression modes, 1 appointment mechanic, 1 cyclic event, 1 PvP mode, and a mode for utilizing your back bench of heroes. This is strong, and the variety of progression modes gives players plenty of methods of measuring their progress. It makes for a fast feeling progression in the beginning, which eventually pushes players to spend or be limited to the paced modes: Arena, Bounty, or Labyrinth.

Where are the restricted events in AFK Arena?

Where are the restricted events in AFK Arena?

Notice here there really is only one mode, which pushes for a wide roster: Labyrinth. Compare this to SWGOH’s events: where some events require/promote specific hero types. I’d expect this mode to be added in the future - it feels like a clear omission out of the turn-based-RPG playbook. For now, it seems they’ve got enough other systems to actually promote a wide roster. Note the faction system that we discussed before puts substantial pressure on your collection, so this event system may not be immediately necessary.

Very Simple Core and a Clear Progression Curve

Overall there isn’t a lot differentiated about the core loop or battle in comparison to other turn-based-RPG on the market. AFK simply took the best bits of the category (ex. Gauntlet Modes, hero Sets) and pulled them earlier in a player’s progression. Lilith then removed some of the pain points of the genre: opting for a more automated battle to get rid of the pain of grinding, and put in an automated income source to pull the players back between sessions.

Most turn-based-RPG games have a variety of PvP and PvE modes which stretch this collection. AFK doesn’t stray too far from that. The changes it focuses on:

  • Three one-time use progression modes -- this allows players to have fast progression from the start of the game, and give them 3 different modes to jump between when another is blocked. When these modes start getting too difficult it starts shifting players focus to their other modes.

  • Three endless modes which drive the player to have the widest collection. These modes are meant to be used more and more as the player is blocked by the progression modes, putting more and more pressure on them to have a wide collection.

Economy and Progression

The game features a very complex economy in which the same things can be obtained in many different ways. Heroes, for example, can be gained from feeding the gacha with either Diamonds or Scrolls, but also with Friendship Points, Hero Shards (as fragments) or bought in one of the 5 ingame stores with specialized currencies. As you can see from the detailed model, there is an abundance of currencies and interchange going on (we’ve grouped them together for better overview).

To create a baseline economy, players can obtain almost all their needed materials just from their passive sources, such as AFK rewards and those that come from daily and weekly quest completion (Gems, Gear, EXP, Coins). All other currencies (ex. Specific currencies earned in modes to purchase items in a store), while all essentially providing the same resulting currencies, mostly exist to curate the rewards and incentivize the various modes of the game such as guild activities or specific single player game modes.

Almost all things in the game can be bought directly or by random chance, the only exception being Player XP, which can only be gained by playing. However, all of these, barring gacha, limit the player in how much they can invest per day. Once a store item is bought, it is gone and can not easily be refreshed. AFK speedups that yield the coveted hero progression materials can only be summoned a few times a day and at escalating hard currency cost, make any hasty decision making a costly exercise.

With so many modes to play and rewards to gain, limitations like these are needed to wrangle an economy this complex.

On top of the economy presented here, there are several currencies that have a very marginal effect on the game economy (Player XP, Resonating Crystals) or are specific to spending users (VIP points, Medals of Valor), which will be covered in the monetization segment.

All things considered, AFK Arena suffers from the same over-complication of systems that we have already seen in Dragalia Lost (read: Dragalia Lost - Meet Nintendo's New Cash Dragon) and similar games. This is also one of the key problems that holds the game back in the West despite being significantly more accessible than many competitors: too many different sources provide too many different currencies that often do the same thing. This makes it hard to figure out the best ways to gain progress and use your time most efficiently.

With it’s simpler base mechanics there could have been a chance to get new players invested in this type of game, but instead AFK Arena ends up catering to the same crowd that already plays and understands Asian-style midcore RPGs. Having said that, the game makes a few interesting economy choices that are worth going deeper on.

Incentivised Hand-Holding

A common tactic among Asian mobile RPG’s since the era of Puzzle and Dragons is providing you with generous finite rewards based on your initial performance until you are deeply invested, and it’s a tactic that AFK Arena has mastered well. Players find themselves in a near gapless progression of rewarded tasks through the various game systems from the very start.

Every single action, no matter how minor, is rewarded generously and upgraded for multiple execution. The stream of rewards is so steady and an omnipresent that it almost feels like quest reward collection is the main game. Thanks to incrementing rewards and the game’s acknowledgement of your every action, the feeling of mastery and constant progression is highly addictive.

Once this stream of easy rewards inevitably dries up due to the feats becoming more difficult to achieve, players are already hooked to maintaining their reward stream as their main progression vector along with campaign.

From special intro quests, to recurring dailies and weeklies, all the way to the best monetisation offers are all geared towards constantly reinforcing the player habits and focusing them on campaign.

From special intro quests, to recurring dailies and weeklies, all the way to the best monetisation offers are all geared towards constantly reinforcing the player habits and focusing them on campaign.

Single-Player Trumps Player vs. Player in AFK Arena

Despite having a PVP system and guild wars, the main progression AFK Arena offers is a linear campaign, and both the quest system and the economy fosters it as the main focus. Features are not unlocked by player level or other progression, only by campaign progress. This ensures that players have reached very exact overall team power, or certain hero type setups when new game features are unlocked. This makes the game highly predictable, as players have no agency over reaching a progression goal, such as unlocking a new game mode, via other means.

PVP and guild play in turn do not have the same pull despite having highly visible competitive progression systems. While fighting in the PVP arena is part of the dailies, the rewards for participation are relatively minor and the game misses an opportunity to encourage more players to progress across its competitive structure. The game even has a Wall of Legends that rewards everyone for single players reaching milestones in the various ways of linear single player progress. Personally, I think that AFK Arena is really missing a trick here by not making PVP (which is traditionally a high spender area) a stronger cornerstone of progression and economy to entice the most ambitious players earlier.

Campaign and other single player progression (right) is unlocked visibly and guidedly, whereas PVP-motivated progression, such as championships, have to be dug from deep within the game

Campaign and other single player progression (right) is unlocked visibly and guidedly, whereas PVP-motivated progression, such as championships, have to be dug from deep within the game

Deep Gacha Focus

Like all of the RPG titles, AFK Arena uses gacha mechanics to acquire heros. There are two flavours of gacha in the game: fully random pulls (common/rare/elite tiers) and pulls within a single rarity bracket (e.g. just elite) in the shape of accumulated crystal shards. These are then upgraded through fusing required or lesser versions into them in a process called Ascendence. The same system is used in a more simplified version with gear: players can fuse any gear piece (or respective currency) into their current alpha equipment. As players progress through the game, more and more rare heros and gear is needed, making the highest levels exponentially harder to obtain.

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Both Heroes and gear use the classic pyramid system in which they are upgraded by fusing lower versions into the better one.

Both Heroes and gear use the classic pyramid system in which they are upgraded by fusing lower versions into the better one.

While this is pretty standard for Japanse RPG games, AFK arena makes some interesting decisions on managing its gacha economy. Two of these stand out in particular:

  1. Limited amount of content increases accessibility

At currently 48 heros, the game ranks in the lower end for hero content on a launch product gacha title. Players almost instantly get to own all heros in the common and rare pool, leaving only the elite heros to aspire to. This lack of breadth funnels the player into a “deep” gacha system in which owning a hero is relatively easily accomplished and the main longevity lies in acquiring the hero several times over. This becomes evident very quickly, and provides affordable maintenance to the dev team (especially since there are no visual progression levels when heroes are ascended) and clearer choices to players less keen on managing large inventories. This comes at the cost of little progression for collection- or discovery-motivated players which tend to be big gacha spenders. Potentially this was done to make the game more appealing to more casual (Western) audiences who may sometimes struggle with the overwhelming amount of content management in Asian RPG games.

The very limited hero count allows players to obtain the base version of many heroes very quickly, but run into their limits just as fast.

The very limited hero count allows players to obtain the base version of many heroes very quickly, but run into their limits just as fast.

2. Retention over (short-term) monetization

This depth-based gacha leads AFK Arena to utilize an astonishing amount of mechanics to ensure the player is not entirely at the mercy of random progression. In a breadth-based system players can always hope for an ultra-rare breakout hero to break an impasse.

For example, players consistently earn elite shards to pull from an elite-level-only pool at a regular basis, gain points they can spend on a hero of their choice for each gacha, have access to a wishlist feature to increase chances of a certain hero appearing and a system to slot in lower level heros to automatically be leveled up to your A team.

While these systems help particularly non-spenders to not lose interest, it also obfuscates clear paths to power and detracts from the main gacha as a means to gain power. It certainly makes the game feel more fair as it seems to even out your bad luck, but does so at the expense of cluttering the economy even more, making the game more core in the process. Other gacha games, like Fire Emblem Heroes or Dragalia Lost have simpler, equally effective systems at evening out the odds.

In the hero recruitment tavern, players have a wishlist feature, which allows them to increase the chance of getting certain heroes. There’s also a progress banner at the top that allows to buy any elite hero when the bar is filled. The bar is filled by opening gacha, so there’s that…

In the hero recruitment tavern, players have a wishlist feature, which allows them to increase the chance of getting certain heroes. There’s also a progress banner at the top that allows to buy any elite hero when the bar is filled. The bar is filled by opening gacha, so there’s that…

To sum it up, it truly feels that Lilith’s focus in AFK Arena has been very much on long term retention at the cost of short term monetization opportunities. It’s safe to assume that their logic is: if we ensure all players feel they can get what they want relatively guaranteed they will stick around and monetize by investing in the less content intensive vertical character investment. The downside is that the gacha feels not like something you want to deliberate invest in. It rarely gains player the power they desire.

Social

Guilds

Guilds open up an ability to get into a small community of similarly active players. But let's be honest, chatting with other players is not why a player wants to join a guild in any of these games. The real reason for player to get social is if they receive direct benefit for doing so.

The reason for a player to join a guild in AFK Arena are: getting an access to the Guild Store as well as receiving an ability to participate in Team Hunting (aka. Raids) and Guilds Wars.

Here’s how it works: Upon joining a guild, completing quests will contribute as Guild Activity Points to the overall guild activity point pool. These points are then spent by the guild leader to start a Team Hunting event. The more points the guild members have accumulated, the better Team Hunting event is kicked off.

In the Team Hunting Event each guild member gets two attempts at a special limited time boss. The more damage they cause, the more rewards they get. The rewards come in form of Items and Guild Coins. And those precious Guild Coins can be used the Guild Store to purchase sweet gear.

The Guild loop pushes the player to actively play the game and complete all of the quests. By completing quests, players contribute Guild Activity Points, which are used to kick off Team Hunts. Team Hunts allow the player to earn Guild Coins, which they spend in the Guild Store to purchase better gears for their heroes.

The Guild loop pushes the player to actively play the game and complete all of the quests. By completing quests, players contribute Guild Activity Points, which are used to kick off Team Hunts. Team Hunts allow the player to earn Guild Coins, which they spend in the Guild Store to purchase better gears for their heroes.

While the guild feature in AFK Arena is not the most social one compared to games like Clash of Clans, King of Avalon or Rise of Kingdoms, it still accomplishes the key goals for the feature. The guilds incentivize players to play together and increase engagement by having players in a guild drive each other to play more and progress further.

Especially I want to highlight the Guild Activity Point mechanic as it truly, in my opinion, the key driver of the guilds in AFK Arena.

Activity points are used to measure the contribution of an individual guild members. This contribution is based on how actively a player completes daily, weekly and campaign quests. In other words, players who engage the most with the game are the most valuable for the guild and as we know, tend to be the most valuable for the developer as well…

Personally I also feel that the activity point is a more versatile way to measure a player’s value to a guild than say traditional donations of resources, speed-ups or troops. While it’s nice to receive gifts from guild members it also makes playing in top guilds draining as you have to constantly be giving to others. With activity points, you are essentially making sure that your guild is filled with highly active players, which on the large scale is the goal of all of the freemium games.

The Guild Wars

Once a guild has more than 10 players and has reached Level 2, it can start participating in Guild Wars to earn Hero Scrolls (aka. summoning tokens) and Coins. Just like the guild feature, the Guild Wars feature has aso an interesting twist opting for engagement rather than hyper monetization.

Each war has three stages ensuring weekly war cadence:

Stage 1: Enroll

Guild master or a deputy can enrolls the guild for a war. Once event is activated, any guild member can join the war. Enrollment will take 48 hours after which the next stage kicks off.

Stage 2: Matchmaking

Once enrollment is completed, the guild will be placed into a matchmaking queue until an evenly matched guild is found for the war. This will take 1 hour to complete.

Stage 3: Battle

After the matchmaking has finalized the battle stage begins. Guild War is divided into five rounds each lasting for a one full day. During each rounds a player battles other players in the opposing guilds spending a Battle Ticket for each battle. The amount of Battle Tickets player has is fixed.

The battles themselves are asynchronous and offer an interesting twist to the core game. Each battle in a Guild War is a three round battle of three different formations. Think of it as three waves of heroes per player with each wave pitted against each other instead of surviving wave staying on the battlefield.

Player creates these three formations out of all of the heroes they have with an exception of common heroes, which are excluded from the Guild Wars.

What is interesting, from monetization perspective, is that players don’t really have to have 15 decked out heroes to participate successfully in a Guild War. This is because all of the heroes player owns will automatically scale to level 160 and will start with mythic tier gear.

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While the Guild War feature doesn’t try to hyper monetize by forcing players to collect three teams maxed out heroes and items it does monetize by selling Battle Tickets. At the center of the Guild War is a leaderboard. Rewards a player receives per round are based on leaderboard ranking. By purchasing more tickets a player can vary his/her formation and give it another go (or ten) in an attempt to take out the players in front of them before the round is over. A lighter monetization feature at the expense of inclusivity. I doubt the Guild War would draw players in the same way if everyone had to have 15 legendary level heroes with the best of gear.

Friends & Unions

Player can add other players as “Friends”. These players will be populating the campaign map - think of it as your friends in Candy Crush Saga map. But there’s also some direct advantage for adding other players as Friends. You see, active players who are Friends, can send Hearts to each other. Once a player accumulates 10 Hearts, s/he can spend them to draw from the specific companion gacha (which has weaker odds, but still is worthwhile).

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Another benefit of Friends is that you can use their heroes to form Unions in the Library and receive Unions buffs. There are three different levels of buffs a player can acquire from each union. The first level buff requires three of prescribed heroes. The level of buff increases as player has more rare heroes in a Union.

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Friend list is once again a feature that drive engagement as players attempt to connect with other highly active player to keep the Hearts coming and their Union buffs popping.

Monetization

Currencies and what the player can purchase

One of the biggest innovations from AFK Arena is the way the game monetizes progression and paces player activity. In most RPGs, as players progress, they encounter harder and harder matchups – up to the point their team is not strong enough to progress. When that happens, most traditional RPGs present players with the option to directly purchase the things that will help them immediately overcome the challenge at hand: Hero Shards, XP, Gear, etc.

In AFK Arena as well, there are of course moments when players are stuck and can’t progress. But when that happens, players don’t have the option to simply spend to immediately move forward.

Spending is of course important to get a better team. When a hero has hit a level cap, acquiring a dupe and ascending the hero is a way to give it a stats boost and increase its level cap. And when a player is stuck because all his heroes are at level cap – and need to be ascended – this is a hard blocker.

This “ascension gate” will constitute a critical moment in the monetization lifecycle of the player: until players get enough dupes to ascend the level caped hero, they simply can’t expect to progress. But ascending a hero will only provide a moderate boost to stats – and ascending will not increase the hero’s level. The underlying drive is that heroes need to be levelled up to progress significantly.

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In AFK spending alone can never be enough to improve your team power rating. The only way to get the resources that will help players level up a hero is via the Progression Modes (Campaign) or the AFK mechanic (Idle timer). When players are blocked and need to level up one of their heroes or enhance their gear, their only option is to wait long enough to accumulate the required resources in the idle resource collection mechanic. AFK Arena ties in the progression and monetization loop to an idle mechanic that introduces new ways to session the player’s journey.  In other words, the only way to level up the heroes in the game is by playing the game.

XP is required to level up heroes. XP is gained only by a) beating a campaign level b) collecting AFK Timer - the higher the player level, the more they collect

XP is required to level up heroes. XP is gained only by a) beating a campaign level b) collecting AFK Timer - the higher the player level, the more they collect

Because players can’t directly purchase what they need in order to progress, the game’s monetization relies more on providing immediate gratification on another level (acquiring heroes rather than progressing), or rewarding them for progressing in the game. This non-linear relationship between spending and progressing also allows the game to double-down on its VIP system. With the VIP system, the indirect benefits of spending become extremely valuable for the dedicated player – perhaps even more than the items purchased.

The Offers

Compared to other RPGs out there, AFK Arena is not that aggressive when it comes to the offers it surfaces to players. But those offers and deals are there - players just need to work a bit to find them. The game features multiple types of IAPs, and there are always multiple deals for players to choose from. And because these are high value/high discount deals they make the default store stand out as a decoy than a significant source of revenue for the game.

First, there are multiple offers: daily, weekly and monthly deals, contextual and time-limited offers. Always, these offers are at a low price-point and with aggressive discounts.

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Subscription and Advancements ‘Rewards’

The mix between immediate gratification and timed progression is reflected in the way the game is surfacing some key monetization features. The “Gift Sets” section features some well-known monetization formats, and some interesting takes on new monetization formats. But always, the offers in the “Gift Sets” combine in a different way monetization and engagement. The game features 2 different types of daily gem subscription. The very standard way to tie-in retention with monetization.

In addition to the run-of-the-mill subscription option AFK Arena offers also progressions ‘rewards’ - a super simplified battle pass if you will - where a single purchase of $20 allows the player to recuperate thousands of diamonds ‘earned’ by progressing in the game.

In addition to the run-of-the-mill subscription option AFK Arena offers also progressions ‘rewards’ - a super simplified battle pass if you will - where a single purchase of $20 allows the player to recuperate thousands of diamonds ‘earned’ by progressing in the game.

What’s most interesting are the “Advancement Rewards” and the “Regal Rewards”. The Advancement Reward is a monetization feature that allows players to get gems as they complete chapters in the campaign. Every milestone when players can collect gems, they collect enough to do at least a 10-pull in the gacha shop. And if players makeit to complete region 19 – which takes a LONG time – they will have collected 45000 gems.

What’s interesting here is that it’s like a non-time limited version of the Battle Pass (where non-payers get nothing). Player spend $19.99 to get a layer of rewards for their progression (rewards they wouldn’t get if they progressed that far but didn’t purchase the advancement rewards). And potentially 30x the gems they would get at the default price.

There is a “standard” Battle Pass-like feature: the “Regal Rewards”. As players unlock Medals of Valor (Battle Points) they unlock rewards. Players have 7 weeks to progress as much as they can and collect as many rewards as they can. If players buy the premium pass for $24.99 they also get a premium layer of rewards. And like the Battle Pass, regardless of when players purchase the premium pass, they get all the premium rewards that correspond to their invested engagement. What’s interesting is that it ties it to the daily/weekly goals. Medals of Valor are obtained by completing the daily and weekly challenges. So effectively it’s a very low cost implementation of the Battle Pass – that doesn’t require the production of new assets or supporting any in-game event. And because it’s tied to daily/weekly quests it can also be set to the desired frequency at no cost.

The VIP System

In AFK Arena, there is a clear advantage a payer will have over a nonpayer: spending in the game helps overcome an “ascension gate” faster (more gacha pulls > more heroes > more ascension opportunities) . But when it comes to resource accumulation and the collection mechanism there is no direct advantage to spending.

However, the VIP system does provide a huge indirect benefit to payers. The higher up the VIP rank the player gets, the more gold and XP s/he can collect from the idle mechanism. Also crucial, higher VIP ranks allow players to perform more finite actions: more fast rewards, more attempts at the Guild Boss or daily bounties.

Higher VIP level gives not only significant passive bonuses, such as bigger rewards from AFK Timer or larger amount of Hero slots but also gameplay bonuses, such as ability to speed up the battles.

Higher VIP level gives not only significant passive bonuses, such as bigger rewards from AFK Timer or larger amount of Hero slots but also gameplay bonuses, such as ability to speed up the battles.

And of course the only way to increase your VIP level as a player is to purchase daily, weekly and monthly deals. In other words, the more you spend on offers the higher your VIP level will be.


Monetisation and Simplification over Core Gameplay and High-quality Graphics

Overall Lilith has clearly done what they know best: a simplified a very deep mid-core game and added the best in class monetization. Ever since 2013 with games like Soul Hunters, DOTA Legends, Art of Conquest, Rise of Kingdoms and now AFK Arena Lilith has been methodically perfecting their approach.

AFK Arena seems to be their attempt to take their best practices from Rise of Kingdoms’ success in the west and adapt it to a turn-based RPG. Product Managers on mobile should pay close attention to what Lilith does with this game: it clearly shows what the best in class looks like for merchandising systems, and does this with a relatively simple core gameplay and graphics compared to its competitors. AFK Arena manages to leapfrog its competition by focusing their innovation in merchandising. Who would have known that a turn-based RPG game with a bland fantasy IP could compete against Marvel or Star Wars in the west?

We believe that AFK’s success is a reflection of the state of the Western market. Since the marketplace has matured, the genres and core gameplay hasn’t changed all that much. Large innovations in the core gameplay don’t seem to be the most effective way to grow. AFK Arena has shown that to beat entrenched games a more product driven path may be more effective.

In the end, Lilth teaches us a simple lesson: Don’t underestimate the impact that strong merchandising can have on your product.






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