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长文:开发者以多个案例谈4X策略手游发展史带来的启示

发布时间:2020-09-08 08:44:07 Tags:,

开发者以多个案例谈4X策略手游发展史带来的启示

原作者:David Chung 译者:Willow Wu

在过去十年中,4X策略手游(也被称为SLG)已经为行业带来了数十亿美元的收入,未来的趋势也只会是继续增长。

4X游戏的历史就是一个充满错误与进步的历程,任何想要踏入这个圈子的人都会明智地从中吸取教训。它们的历史甚至可能预示下一代这些游戏的走向,以及下一个爆款游戏的秘密配方是什么——前提是你要找对地方。

我是谁?过去九年,我玩了不少4X策略游戏,而且都玩到了非常硬核的程度。即使我没有在内购上花一分钱,我也能拿下第一名的位置,成为最强联盟的领导者,并以四位数的价格卖出账号。这是我的外部视角体验。

那内部视角呢?我是创始人兼开发者,带领一支工程师团队打造了一款4X游戏,并亲身参与了它的构思、原型设计、发行以及其它工作。当然,我不能讨论这些内部数据,但外部数据是没有限制的。

在最开始的时候,应用商店里的策略游戏并不多。像Kingdoms at War这样的游戏就能成功登顶盈利榜。在我看来,这些游戏是(我所认为的)第一代4X策略游戏的祖先。游戏中有建筑,可能还有军队。你可以跟其他玩家互动、对战,甚至还有PvE的内容。但是游戏中没有世界地图,没有玩家的居所。

有些PC游戏和网页游戏是有地图的,但移动端没有,至少当时是没有的。

这个类型的游戏实在太多了,我都数不过来,更别说成为游戏的硬核玩家了。接下来我要介绍的这7款游戏不仅能够给我们呈现策略游戏的大致发展历程,还能提供一个切入点,让我们了解什么样的设计能让玩家买账,未来的趋势又会如何发展。

让我们开始吧。

1.《王国征服》(Kingdom Conquest,发行于2010年11月)

这是我玩的第一个策略游戏。这款由世嘉发行的产品并没有那么出名,但还是在当时取得了不小的成功,高居营收榜榜首。这要归功于游戏的亮点:可升级的建筑,最多可达十级。军队以卡片交易为主。用3D PvE对战来吸引眼球&争取用户,不过玩家们很快就发现这只是为战利品宝箱制造的噱头。但最重要的是《王国征服》有世界地图,还有它所带来的应变式玩法。当时,世界地图已经是策略网游的固有设定,而《王国征服》是最早在手游中使用世界地图的产品之一。这是一个非常优秀的游戏,我玩得很投入。但不幸的是它有一个致命缺点,限制了产品的生命周期,最终注定要走向失败。我们后续再讲。

在一开始的时候,策略游戏就能带来节奏紧凑且吸引力十足的新用户体验。利用任务引导玩家的行动。通过推送通知提醒玩家不断回到游戏中。为了让玩家保持兴趣游戏会时不时引入新机制,设定里程碑的目的是让他们保持动力。

但是《王国征服》的游戏结构是基于一种短期、有限的赛季而设计的,这是它的致命缺陷。经历过几个月的混战,决出赢家,然后玩家们的进度就被重置了。不仅如此,游戏内容也是按照这种设计思维而创作的。

很多业内人士都知道,他们从用户身上获得的潜在收入,很大一部分来自于那一小撮一掷千金的人群,也就是所谓的鲸鱼用户。然而,说服他们掏钱是需要时间的。玩家是可能一玩就玩好几年,但这种人为地限制产品寿命无疑会对挖掘潜在收入产生负面影响。

可以想象,在一个赛季结束、进度被重置后,只有小部分玩家会带着同样的兴趣和动力返回游戏。一旦大家意识到无论输赢,他们的努力都会在几个月之后付诸东流,游戏支出自然就会减少了。这种模式也许在当时是一个值得尝试的实验,但事实证明它最后成为了游戏的致命缺陷。

随后,4X策略手游陷入了短暂的低潮,直到2012年初。

2. 《亚瑟王国:北方之战》(Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North,发行于2012年3月)

这是第一个能够造成轰动的4X策略游戏。它之前Facebook平台已经获得了成功,现在又拿下了移动平台。

除了我们已经在《王国征服》中看到的亮点,《亚瑟王国:北方之战》中还有一些值得注意的新东西:玩家可以拥有城市,游戏中有独特的科技树——虽然内容比较有限、简单的英雄角色、以及地图PvE。

建筑升级上还花了点小心思——想要满级的话还需要一样付费道具,玩家得用硬货币购买。

然而,尽管有新的系统,事实证明《亚瑟王国:北方之战》在盈利方面确实不如之后的那些游戏。

增加英雄角色确实是个有益的决策,但他们设计得过于简单了。这里我就不展开说明他们是怎么起作用的了,总之就是玩家渴望英雄带来的加成效果,也愿意为他们付费,但是浅显的表现方式加上成本的限制,导致英雄的潜在作用没有被完全挖掘出来。有限的科技研究内容以及可有可无的PvE也获得了类似的负面评价,导致游戏没有发挥出应有的盈利效果。

从内容扩展角度来说,玩家可以拥有好几座城市的确是个不错的设定,页游也用过这种方法。但事实上这是没有必要的,因为你从现在的这些策略游戏就可以看出,盈利效果的提升是得益于更合理、平衡的建筑升级方式,单个城市也能做到。另外,坦白来说,管理多个城市也容易让人感到乏味。

游戏世界中的应变式行为和PvP威胁也被《亚瑟王国:北方之战》的特有机制所限制:玩家可以选择“隐藏”自己的部队,避免军事损失。与此同时,玩家可以尽情使用城中的资源,获取它们并没有什么难度。这样一来,促成对战的契机以及由此带来的盈利机会都没了。

为了达到更好的盈利效果,在中途开发者决定允许玩家直接购买部队。有些玩家确实觉得很高兴,而短期收入会随着玩家找到新消费渠道而大幅增长。但这样的做法完全无视了游戏的其它内容和平衡性,很有可能会破坏整体的游戏体验,事实证明也的确如此。游戏的排行榜和社区不可避免地受到pay to win的死亡螺旋影响。

顺便说一下,之所以能够收集到某些数据,部分原因是过去反编译Unity游戏非常容易,使得有企图的人能够绕过游戏服务器设置的API安全检查。有人就利用这些数据建立了一个网站,定期搜刮游戏信息,让玩家可以做一些破坏性的事情,比如在地图上轻松搜索到玩家的城市位置。

尽管有这些缺点,《亚瑟王国:北方之战》在那时还是打败了其他竞争对手,获得了成功。开发公司甚至还发行了套皮产品《霍比特人:中土王国》。

之后发行的游戏弥补了这些不足,有了更完善的系统,并配上了更有深度的内容。这些继任者将会拥有更高的生命周期总价值。

Game of War(from pocketgamer.biz)

Game of War(from pocketgamer.biz)

3.《战争游戏:火力时代》(Game of War,发行于2013年7月)

《战争游戏:火力时代》把4X手游的发展史往前推了一大步。开发者汲取了上一代的游戏系统的简洁特性,并进行了适当充实,同时加强了短板,加入了全新的竞技特色。

首先我们来讲一下深度的增加。游戏引入了英雄角色,有较为全面的技能树和与之匹配的装备。城市建设和探索内容现在都丰富了很多,提供了更深层次的进阶方式,既需要时间精力的投入,也需要付出金钱。世界地图现在更生动了,有更多可以观察、互动的东西。地图上还展示了玩家的行军路径,这在过去的迭代中是不存在的。玩家可以收集资源,PvE能够真正发挥作用并提供满足感。希望游戏中有更多策略元素的玩家肯定会喜欢这款游戏。

至于游戏的平衡方面,开发团队似乎将重点放在了玩家目标上,他们很擅长说服玩家在建设城市和研究顶级部队的过程中掏钱。在以前的游戏中,一个高沉浸的玩家可以很合理从容地完成城市建设并获得顶级部队,而现在他们需要花费大量的时间、精力,或者,更可能是大量的金钱来实现同样的目标。之后的热门游戏都遵循了这个模式。

所有这些进步加在一起,使得《战争游戏:火力时代》成为了一款更有深度、更有吸引力的游戏,获得了远胜于之前同类游戏的生命周期总价值。

最重要的是,游戏增加了端游特色,为鲸鱼玩家制造了冲突条件、提供了目标。《战争游戏:火力时代》的实际呈现方式就是奇迹圣地,类似于联盟之间的PvP,还有不同服务区对战活动,或者说王国与王国之间的对决(KvK)。两者都利用了新增的集结机制,促使联盟成员、建筑可以联合攻击/防御。

之后的4X手游都以某种方式沿袭了《战争游戏:火力时代》的这种基本设计框架,它奠定了新的标准。

在游戏之外,MZ能够充分利用《战争游戏:火力时代》的LTV优势,在UA上投入巨资,包括那个广为人知的Kate Upton广告。不少业内人士都很疑惑,MZ在UA上花这么多钱,新获得的用户真的能给他们带来足够的利润吗?但最终MZ获得的市场份额确实是非常可观的,营收第一名的位置很长时间都是被《战争游戏:火力时代》所占据。

然而,随着时间的推移,裂痕出现了。最明显的表现就是运营活动不断地将游戏经济、玩家逼到极限。需要高投入的内容频繁更新,旧内容很快就没剩多少价值了,游戏经济也因此迅速膨胀。

站在LTV的角度考虑,我们无法断言这到底是不是正确的举动。MZ的策略就是趁玩家还沉浸时尽可能地榨取收益,这或许也是他们快速回收UA成本的一种方式。但显然,随着MZ的吸金策略越来越激进,更多玩家因此而离开游戏,甚至包括那些铁杆鲸鱼玩家。在一次非正式调查中,鲸鱼玩家就把这个列为离开游戏的首要原因。尝试提升生命周期总价值有时会带来反效果。

MZ后来也试图把同样的模式套用在Mobile Strike和《最终幻想15》上,但由于引擎过时、期望值不匹配以及市场的变化,这些产品并没有收获令人满意的成绩。

4&5.《列王的纷争》/《帝国霸略》(Clash of Kings / March of Empires,发行于2014年6月/2015年8月)

地图上出现了联盟领地,我们迎来了4X策略手游的又一次重大迭代。

像《列王的纷争》这样的游戏就获得了巨大的成功。不幸的是,当时的我正埋头于游戏开发中,并没有玩这个游戏。不过,通过观察同事们玩游戏、查阅细节,我认为这显然是一个有意义的进步,为世界地图上大规模非人为冲突的制造了新的条件与机会。

在这里,联盟成员可以一起建设城市,为这个集体带来新的技能和利益。

现在的很多游戏都有领地划分,这个机制仍在继续演变。在那段时间,我玩的是《帝国霸略》这个游戏,它的成绩并不怎么理想。对于领土机制,他们的做法是在地图上设定固定建筑和区域,联盟可以占领这些地方,居住在这里的人可以获得某些优势。

这些不同的做法或许能够让大家认识到探索前人未开发的设计领域时所要面临的某些风险。《列王的纷争》里的领土机制很成功,但是《帝国霸略》的却显得有些空洞。仅仅尝试一些新的东西是不够的,你仍然需要找到正确的处理方式。

无论如何,领土机制是一个有意义的进步,之后的游戏也沿用了这个机制。

6.《王国纪元》(Lords Mobile,发行于2016年2月)

再来就是《王国纪元》。

游戏中的两大进步是:

1.更加休闲化,开发者嫁接到游戏中的“《刀塔传奇》式机制”虽然在多方面都是“中看不中用”,但它确实能够降低玩家上手门槛,帮助他们过渡到真正的4X游戏。
2.用户体验优化、对玩家更加友好,画风没有那么硬核了。早期的游戏教程往往很繁琐,再加上粗犷的中世纪艺术风格会让很多潜在玩家望而却步。

这是建立在现在所认为的4X标准特色之上,唯一缺少的关键部分就是联盟领地功能。

除此之外,游戏的英雄系统也进一步丰富了,有多个不同类型的可升级英雄。有些是付费英雄,只能通过花钱购得,其它则可以通过参与活动获得。游戏的在线运营团队也是助推力量之一,在他们的把控下,游戏经济的发展比先前的4X游戏更为可持续,促使玩家能够长久地玩下去。

从外部视角来看,我只能进行推测。但考虑到这类游戏的玩家可以长年累月地投入时间和金钱,与过去那些着眼于短期利益的运营方式相比,《王国纪元》所采取的这种策略应该会给他们的LTV带来很大的好处。

《王国纪元》的成功延续了很长时间,数以亿计的下载量就是证据,创下了4X游戏的新高。

如果硬要挑缺点的话,或许就是基本玩法没有过多延伸吧。如果你也玩过某些老4X游戏,那除了最初看到嫁接休闲机制的新奇感外,就没有多少新东西可期待了。尽管如此,游戏还是取得了巨大的成功,或许是因为它触及到了更广泛的用户群组。

7.《万国觉醒》(Rise of Kingdoms,发行于2018年9月)

接着我们就要说到《万国觉醒》,开发团队将4X手游中的即时策略元素发展到了另一个高度。

多年来,这类手游中的战略元素一直处于停滞不前的状态,开发商只是在老套路上加一点点新花样。奇迹圣地和领地的出现是值得一说的,但其实大多设计都只是在同一玩法上的叠加其它元素。而《万国觉醒》改变了这一点,提供了好几种新的模式。

近十年以来,策略游戏中的行军特色都没怎么变过。玩家发出指令,让他们的军队朝目的地进发,解决敌人,然后返回,就是这样。不知道是出于技术原因,还是只是单纯的缺乏野心,开发者们都没有意向在这一块上下功夫。在之前的所有这些游戏中,最基础的世界地图机制都保持不变。

《万国觉醒》团队宣传这个游戏是即时战斗+无限制行军,但这并不能确切地说明他们是如何改变4X游戏的基础游戏机制,促使策略更多样化的。

首先,战斗并不是即刻就能分出胜负的。两军交锋,展开一段时间的战斗,在此期间,军队可以撤回,可以出现增援部队、改变战斗结果。这样就创造了一种更为逼真、动态化的环境,为应变式玩法制造更多机会。

这就是团队所说的无限制行军。行军不再是简单的往返一趟。现在,玩家可以在中途改道,或者全体停止前进,择地扎营。此外,行军途中还可以进行拦截。综合起来,玩家就多了一系列可选择的战略行动。比如军队出发后,你可以下令接连攻打数个目标,造成混战。入侵者可以配合他们的行军入侵并围攻敌方土地,封锁城内居民。由于玩家现在可以在中途对行军发动攻击,所以现在不可能做到毫发无伤地深入敌军领地了。地理因素现在能产生更大的影响。

说到这,地图本身也有进步。在之前的迭代版本中,行军可以不受阻碍地穿过水面、山脉和其他城市,开发者处理得非常随意。然而,在《万国觉醒》中,这些地形地势都成为了阻碍,需要另寻路线。这在地图上就形成了天然的阻塞点,成为众人争夺的目标。

把时间和空间因素纳入到策略中,促使对战的多了新维度,游戏内容更加多样化。就拿时间因素来说吧,它让英雄拥有一系列不同的技能,持续伤害效果、治疗效果、特定血值范围内的增益等等。而游戏中不同的区域能带来不同的优势,这样一来行军速度就成了关键。

《万国觉醒》的行军机制跟以往的游戏相比做到了质的改变。

除了行军之外,还有很多有意义的改进,这里我就不再展开讲解了。无极缩放地图、迷雾(虽说大多数只是起到装饰作用)、长达一个小时的联盟对战活动,新机制的掌握对胜利来说是至关重要的。

游戏在前代4X设计配方的基础上,进行了重大改造。建筑、研究、英雄、圣地以及他们特有的领土系统和KvK,8方联盟可以持续对战数月,跟其它游戏截然不同。

总而言之,无论是打算尝试这类游戏的新玩家,还是一个想寻找最新最棒游戏的硬核玩家,《万国觉醒》都是一个不容错过的上佳选择。

深入探讨

从游戏设计的角度来看,有三个细节值得拿出来说一说,它们对游戏玩法的塑造以及盈利起到了重要作用。除非你是游戏的老玩家,不然这些细节也是很容易被忽略的。

首先就是设计决策和应变式玩法的结合,可以让环境容纳更多玩家并显著降低他们的死亡率,促使他们更长时间地沉浸在游戏中。就比如医院和部队死亡规则,在低风险情况下,游戏对战容错率相对较高,伤亡率拉低。然而这对潜在的侵略者来说,风险更大了。再加上中途可以拦截行军,高玩去掠夺低阶玩家的情况也变少了——这也是策略游戏玩家经常抱怨的问题之一。“归零”——也就是玩家失去了所有的军队,这种情况仍会发生,但已经减少很多了。最重要的是,想要KvK中取胜,合作是必要的,这就能够很好地刺激各方团结起来,形成强大的凝聚力。由此促成的结果就是在最初的冲突期后,大多数成功存活下来的联盟都能重新组织、友好合作,唯一的重大冲突只发生在KvK中。随着时间的推移,游戏实际将KvK之外归零情况都避免了,玩家们也不会因为自己被碾压到渣都不剩而早早放弃游戏。

第二,盈利策略可持续性非常强。经过谨慎的数据收集,再加上游戏中可以直接获取的某些信息,开发团队可以对某些玩家的消费习惯进行详细评估。在我的评估期内,游戏盈利效果非常好(详细数字就不说了),比后面的竞争对手高出数倍。至于鲸鱼玩家,他们消费的很大一部分似乎是为了获得限定的英雄内容(某些英雄只能通过在活动中参与竞争来获得)。玩家希望有其它形式的内容可以消费,尤其是研究和军队,在季节性活动中能够带来更多收入。

为了让大家对数据有个大概了解,下图是某个顶级联盟在一个月内的消费行为。

80%的收入都来自于消费在1000美元以上的玩家。

另外,游戏的盈利策略在F2P游戏中已经算是非常友好的了,付费玩家在游戏中所得到的优势并没有一般的竞技游戏那么多。我发现10元礼包在《王国纪元》中提供的优势比《万国觉醒》中多出4倍左右。因此,非付费玩家并不是完全处于劣势,而付费玩家也需要为他们想要的优势付出更多。另外,就跟很多游戏一样,当有人购买某些礼包时,他们的联盟成员也会受益,得到加速或其它类型的物品。最终的平衡策略是这样的:如果你能够成为所在服务区的顶级联盟,即使是非付费玩家,你也可以解锁除了英雄之外的所有主要内容——一般情况下玩家需要投入上千元、耗费相当长的一段时间才能解锁,所以这个奖励还是相当可观的。

为了让大家有更明确的感受,我来讲个有意思的事:尽管这些策略游戏我都玩得很投入,但是我从没在内购上花过一分钱。不到一年的时间里,我就能解锁最高级的军队,离开游戏时我以四位数的价格卖掉了账号。这个价格在其它类型游戏中是不可行的。

从另一方面来看,我们就得说说开发者的得失。如果不内购的玩家能够在这个时间段内解锁顶级部队,那么付费玩家当然会更快了。这样一来,游戏在相当早的阶段就失去了付费的主要驱动力。游戏中仍存在其它盈利手段,但它们并不像完成研究和解锁顶级部队那样具有诱惑力。可以想象,游戏的非鲸鱼玩家收入将会显著减少。不经意间,这有可能会为鲸鱼玩家创造一个更激烈的竞争环境,让他们继续投入金钱,增强自己的优势。考虑到他们的消费占到了总收益的80%以上,或许这算是一个值得权衡的选择。

这第三个就涉及到联盟之间和平相处所带来的影响——与长达2个月的KvK混战形成对比。KvK可能会非常激烈,同时也能够有效刺激玩家消费,至少首次参战的玩家会很容易被打动。然而,考虑到混战的激烈程度,其后果和带来的潜在损失或许也非同小可。虽然这种情况并不是每一次KvK都会发生,但是一旦玩家对这其中的成本有了概念、服务区的盟主们能够预感到自己的日子并不会好过、没有把握横扫敌军,那么他们很有可能就会选择和平手段,一起瓜分奖励。个体联盟也是如此。

这也引发了相关的连锁反应。如果KvK很快达成和解,整个服务区就很难再出现对战,这不是一个好结果。然而,如果KvK不以这种方式收场,这种激烈的事件也不适合频繁上演。最终结果就是令人精神紧绷的KvK结束之后,玩家回到自己的服务区,可以享受几个月的平静时光。这是相当反常的做法,游戏日常收入肯定会受影响。就鼓励玩家形成定期消费习惯而言,这种间歇性战事似乎也算不上是什么理想手段。玩家现在不必为战斗花费金钱,这不是恰好为他们提供了一个摆脱内购习惯的好机会吗?甚至集体都不上线了?

虽然这些问题可能多少会限制游戏的潜力,但《万国觉醒》无疑是4X手游史上的一大进步。

那未来会如何发展?

4X策略手游已经蓬勃发展了十年,在未来的岁月里也不会停下脚步。它们经过了多次变革才进化成了今天这个样子,以后的游戏门槛、指标会越来越高。

我们不禁要问:“下一次进化会是什么样的?”

我曾预测并积极使用过某些4X策略元素,之后它们也取得了突破性的成功——当然不是所有的。怎么知道一种特定设计模式即将崛起?其实大部分还是很容易就能看出来的,关键在于你懂得找对地方观察。

在玩法方面,喜欢策略的玩家会希望有更多的策略元素。从多个方面来看,4X策略手游确实在努力赶上PC游戏。你看看像最初的《魔兽争霸》,甚至是更早的游戏,它们所提供的玩法在现在移动平台上,只有最前沿的策略手游才有。更具体地说,无限制行军和实时战斗是在2018年才出现的,而《魔兽》已经发行了20多年了。从技术方面来说,在MMO游戏中实现起来确实困难重重,这也难怪4X策略手游花了这么长时间才能发展到这个地步。但随着开发人员的继续努力,这些元素终将会在手游中找到合适的应用方式。

所以作为一个玩家,或者是一个开发者,想知道下一步会如何发展,其实答案已经摆在那儿了。

比如RTS游戏中常见的空降部队,就为我们拓宽了施展空间。我们如今已经不再只是地对地部队,而是有地对空、空对地、空对空、地对全或空对全的攻击类型。

恭喜,你刚刚发现了一大堆的有趣的组合、内容和策略。

你甚至可以改变一些基本的设计,类似《文明》那样的风格——地图上的单位缓慢、渐进地移动,实时性更强,可以限制、封锁敌军的行动自由。

这肯定会引发新的问题,但它能提供全新的策略和玩法。

还有很多值得尝试的方法,无论是不是在RTS游戏中。例如领地系统,非常早就出现在MMORPG中了。

主力舰、大规模杀伤性武器攻击、部队运输单位、间谍……我相信当你在思考游戏的可能性时,想到的东西肯定还不止这些。

对于那些想要在策略游戏上获得成功的人来说,开发所需要的成本投入会越来越高。小型开发商想要筹资组建这样一个团队也会越来越难。而能够得到资助的团队将需要面临高昂的赌注。

不过对于那些喜欢这类游戏的玩家来说,未来的几年应该只会出现更多令你欣喜的东西。而对于那些有远见的人来说,做出一款优秀的4X游戏将会为你带来丰厚的战利品。

本文由游戏邦编译,转载请注明来源,或咨询微信zhengjintiao

Over their decade long run, mobile 4X strategy games, sometimes known as SLGs, have brought in billions of dollars in revenue with only more to come.

For those wanting to get in on it, the history of these games is littered with both progress and mistakes that any hopeful successor would be wise to learn from. Their history may even foretell where the next generation of these games will go, and what the secret sauce of the next big one will be. You just need to know where to look.

Where am I coming from? Over the past nine years, I’ve played an array of 4X strategy games at a very hardcore level. Even as a player who doesn’t spend on IAPs, I’ve been the #1 player, led top clans, and sold my accounts for a tidy four figures. That’s the outside perspective I bring.

The inside perspective? I was the founding developer that led a team of engineers to build one such game, and was hands on for its conception, through prototyping, launch, and beyond. I can’t discuss internal numbers of course, but nothing’s stopping me from discussing external ones.

In the beginning, the strategy games in the appstores were quite light. Games such as Kingdoms at War succeeded in reaching the top grossing charts. These were forebearers to what I’d consider the first real 4X strategy games on mobile. They had buildings, and armies perhaps. You could fight and interact with other players, and there might’ve even been PvE. But there was no world map. No physical world the players resided in.

There were PC and web-games that had this to be sure, but those hadn’t made the move to mobile, at least not yet.

There are far too many games in the genre for me to count let alone play to a deep enough degree. However, the seven I’ll go over paint an overall picture of the genre’s history over a large time span, and will give us a perspective into what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what’s to come. Let’s get to it.

Kingdom Conquest Kingdom Conquest
[November 2010]

This was the first game I played in this space. A lesser-known title from Sega which saw some decent success for its time, making it high into the top grossing charts. It had the prerequisites. Upgradeable buildings, ten levels each. Armies, themed as trading cards. Eye candy for UA in the form of 3D PvE encounters, though players quickly found out it was just a facade for a loot box. But most importantly, it had a world map, and the emergent behaviours that it brought to the table. Already a staple in the web-based games of the genre, this was one of the early implementations of world maps on mobile. It was a great game. I played the hell out of it. Unfortunately it had a fatal flaw that limited its lifespan and doomed it. More on that to come.

From the very start, this genre of games had a tight, addictive NUX. Quests guide the player’s actions. Return notifications call players back again and again. New mechanics are introduced keeping things interesting, and giving players milestones to strive for.

Kingdom Conquest’s fatal flaw however was that they structured the game based on a short, finite season structure. After battling it out for multiple months, with a winner declared, player progress was reset. Not only this, but content was naturally structured with this in mind.

As many in the industry will know, the majority of the potential revenue from users comes from the tiny proportion of spenders who decide to spend a lot: the whales. To capture this full potential however requires time. Players can play for years and years, but artificially capping their lifespan slashes the full potential of this LTV.

As can be imagined, after a season reset, only a fraction of players return with the same interest and intent to spend. Any player would temper their spending in the game once they found out that even if they “won”, it’d all be gone within a few months. Maybe it was a worthwhile experiment to try at the time, but it was a severe handicap in the end.

A brief lull in the genre followed until early 2012.

Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North
[March 2012]

Here was the first mobile game in the genre that hit it big in this space. This was the mobile incarnation of what was already a Facebook success.

To the formula we had already seen in Kingdom Conquest, Kingdoms of Camelot added a few new things to the mobile mix. A distinct, though limited, research tree. Multiple player-owned cities. Simple heroes. Simple map PvE.

Building upgrades also included a minor twist, where players who wanted to fully upgrade the building to level 10 needed a premium item to do so. One which cost them premium currency, available through in app purchases.

However, despite the additional systems, the game proved to be less effective at monetization than future successors would be.

Their heroes, while a nice addition were simplistic and not fleshed out at all. Skipping the fine details about how they worked, players desired the benefits they provided, and would pay for them, but the shallow way they worked combined with the cost ceiling left a great deal of potential on the table. The limited research and useless PvE came with similar criticism. They were shallow and the game subsequently wasn’t as effective at monetization as it could be.

The ability for players to own multiple cities was an interesting advent as a way to try to stretch out the content, something the web-based game also made use of. But really it wasn’t necessary, as future takes on the genre would find: a single city with better-balanced building progression was cleaner, and better yet, was more conducive to monetization. Moreover, managing multiple cities was frankly tedious.

The emergent behaviours and PvP threats in the game world were also limited by a Kingdoms of Camelot-specific mechanic where players could opt to “hide” their troops, making them impervious to military losses. The resources in their city would be free for the taking in the meanwhile, but those were fairly easy to acquire. As a result, certain opportunities for conflict and the monetization that comes with it was lost altogether.

In an attempt to better monetize the game, part way through its lifespan the developers decided they’d allow troops to be directly purchased. Certain players loved this to be sure, and short-term revenues shot up as the ineffectively monetized players found an avenue to spend. But such an approach totally circumvented the rest of the game’s content and balance. It was a tacked on lever that was completely disconnected from the rest of the game, with a high potential to break it, which it sure enough did. The game’s leaderboards and community was subject to an inevitable p2w death spiral from which entire shards would never recover.

Wild power gain in Kingdoms of Camelot after monetization changes

Imbalanced monetization resulting in unstable community and p2w death spiral (data from first shard)

As an aside, some of this data is available in part because of how easy it was to decompile Unity builds in the past, allowing enterprising individuals to bypass API security checks the game server had in place. One such individual used this information to build a site that periodically scraped game information, allowing players to do game-breaking things such as easily searching for player city locations on the map.

Despite its shortcomings Kingdoms of Camelot found success at the time as it stood above its rivals, and it would spin off skins such as The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth.

The games that would follow it though made up for these shortcomings, with better fleshed out systems and deeper content to match. These successors would reap the benefits of far higher LTV ceilings as a result.

Game of War
[July 2013]

Game of War offered a big step up. The simplistic systems of the previous generation were taken, and properly fleshed out, while weaknesses were shored up, and brand new competitive features added.

To start off, let’s go over the added depth. A hero avatar was introduced, with a fleshed out skill tree and equipment to match. Both the city and research content was now much deeper, offering a deeper progression path to both strive and monetize for. And the world map was now livelier, with more to observe and engage in. Player marches were now visualized, something absent in past iterations, resources could be gathered, and PvE was actually useful and rewarding. A player seeking more strategy in their games would find it here.

On the whole, the balancing seemed to have kept a better eye on player goals, and as a result they did a better job monetizing the critical path players take in the game as they build out their city and research the top tier troops. While in previous games an engaged player could pretty reasonably complete their city and attain top troops, it now took either considerable time and effort, or more likely, money, to achieve the same. Every successful game to follow would take a similar route.

All of these advancements together made for a deeper and more engaging game, which reaped far better LTVs.

To top it off, significant end game features were added, creating sources of conflict and goals for the biggest spenders. This came in the form of Wonders, a sort of clan-pvp king of the hill, along with shard vs. shard events, commonly referred to KvK. Both made use of added rallying mechanics, enabling the joint attack and defense of clan members and structures.

The basic formula laid out by Game of War would be carried forward in some form in all of the genre’s successors to come. A new baseline had been set.

Outside of the game, Game of War was able to fully exploit its LTV advantages with tremendous UA efforts, including its infamous Kate Upton TV spots. Many in the industry questioned how they could be acquiring users profitably with the amount of spend here, but in the end, it’s undoubtable how much of the market they captured as they had a solid position on the top grossing charts for a considerable stretch of time.

As time marched on though, cracks emerged. This was marked most significantly by the way live ops constantly pushed the economy and the game’s players to the breaking point. Expensive whale content was frequently refreshed, which made older content obsolete, while at the same time aggressively inflating the economy.

It’s impossible to say if this might’ve been the right move from an LTV standpoint. Their strategy was to aggressively suck out as much money as possible from players while they were still engaged, perhaps as a way to try to recoup their UA costs as soon as possible. What is clear though is that as this became more drastic, this was the specific thing that started to drive more players away, even their most dedicated whales. An informal survey of whales placed this as a top concern. Attempts to improve LTV may have backfired in the end.

Machine Zone, the makers of Game of War, would later try to run the same playbook with games like Mobile Strike and Final Fantasy XV, but a combination of a dated engine, mismatched expectations, and perhaps a change in the market limited the success of these endeavors.

Clash of Kings / March of Empires
[June 2014 / August 2015]

The next major iteration on the genre came with the advent of clan-controlled territories on the map.

Games like Clash of Kings saw significant success here. Unfortunately this wasn’t one of the games I chose to pick up during this period as I was deep in the game development grind. However, observing colleagues playing the game and reading up on the details it’s clear it was a meaningful step forward and laid the ground for new sources of large scale organic conflict on the world map.

Here, clan members could work together to construct structures on the world map, which provided benefits and new capabilities to members within it.

Many games now have their own take on territory, and it’s something that’s still evolving. The game I did play during this time that tried to tackle territory in its own way was March of Empires, which saw only very limited success. Its take involved fixed territories and buildings on the map, as opposed to something more organic. Clans can take over these territories and buildings, which provide dwellers with advantages.

These different variations are perhaps a good example of some of the risks involved when exploring an untapped design space. While territory in Clash of Kings proved quite successful, the implementation in March of Empires felt lacking. It isn’t sufficient to just try something new, you still have to get it right.

Regardless, territory mechanics were a meaningful advance forward, and something which various successors would continue to take up.

Lords Mobile
[February 2016]

Then came Lords Mobile.

The two most obvious steps forward were:

1.The more casual-friendly, “Heroes Charge”-like mechanic they grafted onto the game, which was ornamental in many ways but helped ease players into the on boarding until they could transition into the real 4X game.
2.The much improved UX and friendlier, less-hardcore art style. Early games were often clunky to navigate, with a gritty medieval art style that could turn off many potential players.
Lords Mobile

This was built atop of what was now the standard fare of 4X features. The only major thing missing was clan territory functionality.

Beyond this, their hero system was further fleshed out to include a multitude of different heroes, each of whom could be leveled up. Some were premium heroes that could only be purchased, while others could only be attained from events. The game also benefited from a live ops team that ran a healthier economy than some of its predecessors, supporting player longevity.

From the outside I can only speculate, but considering players of these types of games can play and spend for years and years, this healthier player longevity could have resulted in a significant benefit to their LTV metrics in comparison to the short-sighted live ops mentality of the past.

Lords Mobile became a long-lived success, as evidenced by the hundreds of millions of downloads it racked up, more than any of its predecessors.

If there was any short-coming to point out, it might only be that it didn’t push the fundamental gameplay forward that much. Someone who had played previous iterations wouldn’t have had too much new to look forward to beyond the initial novelty from the grafted on casual mechanics. It achieved great success in spite of this however, perhaps a result of the expanded audience base it was able to reach.

Rise of Kingdoms
[September 2018]

That leads to Rise of Kingdoms, which significantly pushed forward the real time strategy elements of the genre on mobile.

The strategy elements had grown stagnant on this front for many years, with developers just taking the old formula and adding some new bells and whistles. The addition of wonders and territory were notable, but were mostly just layered on elements atop of the same gameplay. Rise of Kingdoms would change this, carving out multiple new paths on this front.

For almost a decade now, the basic march functionality remained more or less the same. Players could send their armies from their city to a target, an attack would be resolved, and the army would return. That’s it. Whether for technical reasons or lack of ambition, developers didn’t invest in pushing this forward. The underlying world map mechanics remained the same across all of these previous games.

Rise of Kingdoms promotes their take as a combination of Real-Time Battles, and Unrestricted Troop Movement, but this doesn’t do justice to spelling out all of the changes that were made to the underlying mechanics, and the strategy it enables.

Firstly, no longer are battles resolved instantly. Instead, when armies clash, combat plays out over a period of time, during which armies can withdraw, or reinforcements can arrive and change the outcome of the battle. This creates a more lively and dynamic environment, and a greater surface area for emergent behaviours to arise.

Amplifying this is what they market as unrestricted troop movement. Marches are no longer constrained to their simple: city-to-target, target-to-city routes. They can now be redirected mid-route, or halted altogether and ordered to camp out on the map. Moreover, marches can be intercepted mid-route. Combined, this enables whole swaths of new strategic behaviour. A single march for example can be sent out, hitting target after target across the map, causing mayhem. A band of invaders can coordinate their marches, invading and besieging enemy lands, locking inhabitants in. Conversely, since marches can now be attacked mid-route, no longer can an attack be launched deep into enemy territory with impunity. Geographic consequences come much more into play.

Speaking of that, there were advances on the map itself. In previous iterations, developers would take liberties as marches walked straight over water, mountains, and other cities unhindered. Here however, all of those create impediments that need to be navigated around. At its culmination, this creates natural choke points on the map which become focal points to be contested.

This enabling of time and space considerations allows for new dimensions of combat to be explored, and new ways to differentiate content. The time-factor for example enables heroes with a wide array of different abilities, damage over time effects, healing, buffs during certain health ranges, and more. Additionally the space-factor makes area of effect abilities possible, and makes troop speed a critical factor.

This is a far cry from the simple march mechanics of predecessors.

Beyond this are other meaningful advances I won’t dwell on. Massive zoom out capabilities, fog of war (though mostly cosmetic), an hour-long clan vs. clan battleground event with a heavy use of all of these new mechanics.

This sits atop of other tried and true pieces of the formula. Buildings, research, heroes, wonders, along with their particular take on territory systems and KvKs, where 8-shards compete over 2 months unlike most other games.

All told, if a new player were coming to the genre, or a hardened veteran was looking for the latest and greatest, Rise of Kingdoms would be the surefire game to point them to.

From the UA perspective, the game was originally titled Rise of Civilizations, later renamed due to trademark disputes. It’s reasonable to speculate they may have been looking to benefit from organic searches for Sid Meier’s seminal game. It also seems like it may have been a conscious choice to attempt to reap the worldwide UA benefits of the free “IP” available by centering the game around different nationalities and historical figures. The appeals of a Joan of Arc, Caesar, Cleopatra, or Sun Tzu.

A Deeper Dive

From the game design perspective, there are three specifics worth calling out that play a significant part in shaping the actual gameplay as well as the monetization. These are the sort of things that might be easily overlooked unless you were a longtime player of the game.

First, a combination of the design decisions and the emergent behaviours that play out results in an environment that can be significantly more survivable and forgiving for a larger number of players, keeping them in the game longer. For example, the hospital and troop death rules are laid out in a way where combat can be much more forgiving in lower stake scenarios, while also being more risky for would be aggressors. Combined with the ability to intercept marches mid-route, this reduces situations where large players will want to take the risk and pay the cost of picking on weaker players – a frequent complaint in games of this genre. “Zeroings”, where players lose all their troops, can still happen but are much rarer. To top it off, the need for cooperation to succeed in KvKs creates a strong incentive for shards to coalesce, and as a result after an initial period of conflict, most successful shards find ways to organize and work together peacefully, with the only major conflict occurring in KvKs. With time, this practically eliminates such zeroings outside of KvKs, and with it the sort of harassment that makes a lot of players quit early on.

Second, monetization seems very healthy up front. With some meticulous data collection, and using information they happen to make available in the game, it’s possible to get a detailed assessment of certain player spending habits. Without going into fine details, the rate of monetization during my assessment period was very strong, a multiple over a less successful competitor at the time. For whales, a large part of this seemed to go towards acquiring limited hero content, where certain heroes were structured in a way that they could only be acquired by competing over them in events. This is on top of the desire to spend on other forms of content, especially research and troops, with an added boost of revenue during seasonal events.

To provide a little peek into the data collected, here was the spending behaviour from the top clan in one of the top shards over a one month period.

Daily spend by bundle type, heavily driven by event competition and content

80% of revenue came from players who spent $1000+ in one month

At the same time, the monetization balancing is far more f2p friendly, in that monetizing players get less of an advantage for their money than they do in competing games. Eyeballing it at one point, I found that a $10 bundle gave about 4x more of an advantage in Lords Mobile than in Rise of Kingdoms. As a result, f2p players aren’t as ridiculously outgunned, and monetizing players also need to pay more for the advantages they desire. Furthermore, as is the case in many of these games, when someone purchases certain bundles, their clan mates benefit by getting a gift of beneficial items or speedups. The final balancing is such that if you’re able to make it into the top clan in your shard, you can benefit tremendously to the point where even as a f2p player it’s possible to unlock all of the main pieces of content aside from the heroes. This is something that would cost players thousands of dollars to unlock in a reasonable timeframe otherwise.

To provide an anecdote to give you a sense of this, even though I play these games quite dedicatedly, I never buy IAPs. In less than a year, I was able to unlock the top tier of troops, and sell my account for a low 4-figures when I left the game. This amount isn’t something that was feasible in the balancing of other games.

The other side of this though is the cost to the developers. If someone who doesn’t buy IAPs is able to unlock top tier troops in that time frame, players who do monetize can do so even sooner, cutting off one of the primary drivers for monetization earlier on than in other games. Other reasons to continue monetizing remain, but these aren’t as enticing as completing your research and unlocking the top tier troops. I could imagine this putting a meaningful dent in their non-whale LTVs. Inadvertently, it’s possible this helps create a fiercer, more competitive environment for whales to continue spending against. Considering they make up 80%+ of the revenue, perhaps this is a worthwhile trade off.

The third thing worth calling out involves the consequences of the peaceful in-shard metagame, in contrast with the 2-month long KvKs. The KvKs can be intense, and prove a great incentive for players to monetize, at least the first time players participate in them. Due to their intensity however, the consequences and potential losses can be equally large. While it doesn’t happen in every KvK, once players have a sense of the costs involved, if the leaders of a shard get the sense they won’t have an easy time and be able to sweep the KvK, there will be strong incentives to reach a diplomatic end to the KvK, and divvy up the rewards. Similar to what happens in individual shards.

This has related knock-on effects. If KvKs typically reach a quick diplomatic end, entire shards will lose their last remaining source of conflict, not a great result. At the same time, if KvKs don’t wind up this way, KvKs are just too intense to be run too often. The result being that after the heightened activity of a KvK, players return back to their home shards for months worth of peace. It’s quite anti-climactic, and I can only imagine it hurting their daily revenue numbers. The coming and going of conflict for large periods of time also seems non-ideal when it comes to encouraging regular player spending habits. A long break from conflict-driven reasons to monetize seems to provide players a good excuse to break their IAP addictions, or even leave the game altogether.

Though these issues may limit its full potential, Rise of Kingdoms is undoubtedly a sizable step forward for this genre on mobile.

What’s Next?

Mobile 4X strategy games have thrived for a decade now, and will continue to do so for years and years to come. They’ve undergone a constant evolution to get to where they are now, continuing to set higher and higher gameplay bars, and higher and higher metrics.

It’d only be fair to ask, “What’s next?”

In my previous life as a game developer, I’ve predicted and pushed for some of the very elements that have come to see breakthrough success in this genre. Not all of them certainly, but if you know where to look a certain pattern emerges, much of it in plain sight.

On the gameplay side, players who crave strategy will want more and more strategy. In many ways in this genre, mobile is playing catch up with PC games. When you look at something like the original Warcraft, or even games that preceded it, the gameplay there already delivered what’s only now at the cutting edge of the actual strategic gameplay on mobile. Specifically, unrestricted troop movement and real-time battles only came in 2018, over 20 years after Warcraft. On the technical front these are much more challenging to deliver in a massively multiplayer online game, so it’s no wonder it’s taken awhile to get here, but as developers continue to push on to try to deliver the next top grossing hit, these elements will continue to find ways to mobile.

So as a player, or a developer who’s asking what’ll capture player imaginations next, the answers are already out there.

Things like airborne troops common in RTSes open up swathes of strategy. Instead of just the surface-to-surface troops of today, we now have surface-to-air troops, air-to-surface, air-to-air, surface-to-all, or air-to-all attack types. Congratulations, you’ve just exploded the interesting combinations, content, and strategy you can deliver.

Or even changing some of the fundamentals, and moving towards more of a Civilization-like approach, where units on the map move slowly and gradually in more of a real-time fashion, and freedom of opposing troops on the map can be completely restricted and blockaded. This would open up problems to be solved to be sure, but it delivers on totally new strategy and gameplay.

There are numerous promising avenues here, both in and outside RTSes. Territory systems for example long existed in MMORPGs before RTSes.

Capital ships. WMD attacks. Shardless game servers. Troop transportation units. Espionage. And I’m sure plenty more come to your mind when you think about the possibilities.

To those wanting to deliver on strategy, the investment needed to develop these games will grow ever higher. It’ll be harder and harder for smaller developers to fund a team that can build this out. And the teams that can be funded will require costly bets.

For those who love these games though, the years to come should only bring more of what you love. And to those with the foresight to deliver on it will come the spoils.

(source:gamasutra.com )


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