In the past decade, 4X strategic mobile games (also known as SLG) have brought billions of dollars in revenue to the industry, and the future trend will only continue to grow.
The history of 4X games is a course full of mistakes and progress, and anyone who wants to step into this circle will wisely learn from it. Their history may even indicate the direction of the next generation of these games, as well as the secret formula of the next hot game-provided you find the right place.
who am I? In the past nine years, I have played a lot of 4X strategy games, and they have all played very hardcore. Even if I didn’t spend a penny on internal purchases, I could still take the first place, become the leader of the strongest alliance, and sell my account at a four-digit price. This is my experience from the outside perspective.
What about the internal perspective? I am the founder and developer. I led a team of engineers to create a 4X game, and I personally participated in its conception, prototyping, release and other work. Of course, I cannot discuss these internal data, but external data is unlimited.
In the beginning, there were not many strategy games in the app store. Games like Kingdoms at War can successfully reach the top of the profit chart. In my opinion, these games are (in my opinion) the ancestors of the first generation of 4X strategy games. There are buildings in the game, and possibly an army. You can interact with other players, play against each other, and even have PvE content. But there is no world map in the game, and there is no player’s residence.
Some PC games and web games have maps, but the mobile terminal does not, at least not at the time.
There are so many games of this type, I can’t even count them, let alone become a hardcore player of the game. The 7 games I will introduce next can not only show us the general development history of strategy games, but also provide an entry point for us to understand what kind of design allows players to buy it, and how the future trend will develop.
1. “Kingdom Conquest” (published in November 2010)
This is the first strategy game I played. This product issued by Sega was not so famous, but it still achieved considerable success at the time, ranking first in the revenue list. This is due to the highlight of the game: Upgradable buildings, up to ten levels. The army mainly deals with cards. Use 3D PvE battles to attract attention & gain users, but players soon discovered that this was just a gimmick for loot chests. But the most important thing is that “Kingdom Conquer” has a world map and the strained gameplay it brings. At that time, the world map was already an inherent setting for strategic online games, and “Kingdom Conquest” was one of the first products to use the world map in mobile games. This is a very good game and I play it very hard. Unfortunately, it has a fatal shortcoming that limits the life cycle of the product and is ultimately doomed to failure. We will talk about it later.
From the very beginning, strategy games can bring new user experiences that are tightly paced and attractive. Use tasks to guide players’ actions. Remind players to keep coming back to the game through push notifications. In order to keep players interested, the game will introduce new mechanisms from time to time. The purpose of setting milestones is to keep them motivated.
But the game structure of “Kingdom Conquer” is designed based on a short, limited season, which is its fatal flaw. After months of melee, the winner was decided, and then the players’ progress was reset. Not only that, the game content is also created in accordance with this design thinking.
Many people in the industry know that a large part of the potential income they get from users comes from the small group of people who spend a lot of money, the so-called whale users. However, it takes time to convince them to pay. Players may play for several years as soon as they play, but this kind of artificial limitation of product life will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the potential income.
It is conceivable that after a season is over and the progress is reset, only a small number of players will return to the game with the same interest and motivation. Once everyone realizes that whether they win or lose, their efforts will be in vain in a few months, and game spending will naturally decrease. This model may be an experiment worth trying at the time, but it turned out to be a fatal flaw in the game.
Subsequently, the 4X strategy mobile game fell into a brief low tide until early 2012.
2. “Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North” (Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North, released in March 2012)
This is the first 4X strategy game that can cause a sensation. It had been successful on the Facebook platform before, and now it has won the mobile platform.
In addition to the highlights that we have already seen in “Kingdom Conquest”, there are some notable new things in “Kingdom of Arthur: Battle of the North”: players can own cities, and there are unique technology trees in the game-although the content is relatively limited , Simple hero characters, and map PvE.
A little bit of thought was spent on building upgrades-if you want to reach the full level, you also need a paid item, which players have to buy with hard currency.
However, despite the new system, it turns out that “Kingdom of Arthur: Battle of the North” is indeed inferior to the subsequent games in terms of profitability.
Adding hero roles is indeed a useful decision, but they are designed to be too simple. I won’t expand on how they work here. In short, players are eager for the bonus effects brought by heroes and are willing to pay for them. However, the simple way of expression and cost constraints have led to the potential role of heroes not being affected. Excavated completely. The limited scientific and technological research content and optional PvE have also received similar negative reviews, causing the game to not play its due profit effect.
From the perspective of content expansion, it is indeed a good setting for players to have several cities, and this method has also been used in web games. But in fact, this is not necessary, because you can see from these current strategy games that the increase in profitability is due to a more reasonable and balanced way of building upgrades, which can be done in a single city. In addition, frankly speaking, managing multiple cities can be tedious.
The contingency behaviors and PvP threats in the game world are also restricted by the unique mechanism of “Arthurian Kingdom: Battle of the North”: players can choose to “hide” their troops to avoid military losses. At the same time, players can use the resources in the city as much as they want, and there is no difficulty in obtaining them. In this way, the opportunity to promote the battle and the resulting profit opportunities are gone.
In order to achieve better profitability, the developer decided to allow players to directly purchase troops in the middle. Some players do feel very happy, and short-term income will increase substantially as players find new consumption channels. But such an approach completely ignores the other content and balance of the game, and is likely to destroy the overall gaming experience, which has proven to be the case. The ranking of the game and the community are inevitably affected by the death spiral of pay to win.
By the way, part of the reason why certain data can be collected is that in the past it was very easy to decompile Unity games, allowing those who attempted to bypass the API security check set by the game server. Someone uses this data to build a website to search for game information on a regular basis, so that players can do some destructive things, such as easily searching for the player’s city location on the map.
Despite these shortcomings, “The Kingdom of Arthur: Battle of the North” defeated other competitors at that time and achieved success. The development company even released a leather product “The Hobbit: Kingdom of Middle-earth”.
The games released later made up for these shortcomings, with a more complete system and more in-depth content. These successors will have a higher total life cycle value.
3. “Game of War: Age of Fire” (Game of War, released in July 2013)
“Game of War: Age of Firepower” took a big step forward in the history of 4X mobile games. The developer has absorbed the concise features of the previous generation of game systems, and carried out appropriate enrichment, while strengthening the shortcomings and adding new competitive features.
First, let’s talk about the increase in depth. The game introduces hero characters, with a more comprehensive skill tree and matching equipment. The content of urban construction and exploration is now enriched a lot, providing a deeper and more advanced way, which requires both time and energy investment and money. The world map is now more vivid, with more things to observe and interact with. The map also shows the player’s marching path, which did not exist in past iterations. Players can collect resources, PvE can really work and provide satisfaction. I hope that players who have more strategic elements in the game will definitely like this game.
As for the balance of the game, the development team seems to focus on player goals. They are very good at persuading players to spend money in the process of building cities and researching top troops. In previous games, a highly immersive player can reasonably and calmly complete city construction and obtain top troops, but now they need to spend a lot of time, energy, or, more likely, a lot of money to achieve the same goal. Popular games since then have followed this pattern.
The combination of all these advancements makes “Game of War: Age of Firepower” a deeper and more attractive game, with a total lifetime value that is far better than that of previous similar games.
Most importantly, the game adds end-game features, creating conflicting conditions and providing goals for whale players. The actual presentation of “War Game: Age of Fire” is the Holy Land of Miracles, which is similar to PvP between alliances, and there are battle activities in different service areas, or a duel between kingdoms (KvK). Both use the newly-added assembly mechanism to promote alliance members and buildings to jointly attack/defense.
Later 4X mobile games followed the basic design framework of “War Game: Age of Firepower” in some way, and it set a new standard.
In addition to the game, MZ can make full use of the LTV advantages of “Game of War: Age of Fire” and invest heavily in UA, including the well-known Kate Upton advertisement. Many people in the industry are puzzled, MZ spends so much money on UA, can the newly acquired users really bring them enough profits? But in the end, MZ’s market share is indeed very impressive, and the top position in revenue has been occupied by “War Game: Age of Fire” for a long time.
However, over time, cracks appeared. The most obvious manifestation is that operating activities continue to push the game economy and players to the limit. The content that requires high investment is frequently updated, and the old content will soon lose much value, and the game economy is rapidly expanding.
From the perspective of LTV, we cannot say whether this is the right move. MZ’s strategy is to extract as much revenue as possible while the players are still immersed. This may also be a way for them to quickly recover UA costs. But obviously, as MZ’s strategy of attracting gold becomes more and more aggressive, more players will leave the game, even those hardcore whale players. In an informal survey, whale players listed this as the primary reason for leaving the game. Attempts to increase the total lifetime value can sometimes have the opposite effect.
MZ later tried to apply the same model to Mobile Strike and “Final Fantasy 15”, but due to outdated engines, mismatched expectations and changes in the market, these products did not yield satisfactory results.
4&5. Clash of Kings / March of Empires (Clash of Kings / March of Empires, published in June 2014/August 2015)
Alliance territory appeared on the map, and we ushered in another major iteration of the 4X strategy mobile game.
Games like “Clash of Kings” have been a huge success. Unfortunately, I was immersed in game development at the time and did not play this game. However, by observing my colleagues playing games and checking details, I think this is obviously a meaningful improvement, creating new conditions and opportunities for large-scale non-human conflicts on the world map.
Here, alliance members can build cities together and bring new skills and benefits to the collective.
Many games now have territories, and this mechanism is still evolving. During that time, I played the game “Empire Bully”, and its results were not very satisfactory. For the territorial mechanism, their approach is to set fixed buildings and areas on the map, the alliance can occupy these places, and people who live here can gain certain advantages.
These different approaches may be able to make everyone aware of some of the risks they face when exploring undeveloped design areas. The territorial mechanism in “Clash of Kings” is very successful, but the “Imperial Conspiracy” seems a little hollow. It is not enough to try something new, you still need to find the right way to deal with it.
In any case, the territory mechanism is a meaningful improvement, and subsequent games will also use this mechanism.
6. “Kingdom” (Lords Mobile, released in February 2016)
Next is “Kingdom Era”.
The two major advancements in the game are:
1. More casual. Although the “Dota Legend” mechanism that the developer has grafted into the game is “unusable” in many ways, it can indeed lower the threshold for players to get started and help them transition to real 4X games.
2. The user experience is optimized, and the player is more friendly, and the style is not so hard-core. Early game tutorials are often very cumbersome, coupled with the rough medieval art style will discourage many potential players.
This is based on what is now considered the 4X standard features, the only key missing part is the alliance territory function.
In addition, the game’s hero system has been further enriched, with multiple types of heroes that can be upgraded. Some are paid heroes and can only be purchased by spending money, others can be obtained by participating in activities. The online operation team of the game is also one of the driving forces. Under their control, the development of the game economy is more sustainable than the previous 4X games, which encourages players to play for a long time.
From an external perspective, I can only speculate. But considering that players of this type of game can invest time and money for many years, compared with those operating methods that focus on short-term benefits in the past, the strategy adopted by “Kingdom Era” should bring them a lot of LTV. benefit.
The success of “Kingdoms” lasted for a long time, and hundreds of millions of downloads are evidence, setting a new high for 4X games.
If you insist on picking out shortcomings, maybe the basic gameplay is not extended too much. If you have also played some old 4X games, there are not many new things to look forward to except for the novelty of grafting casual mechanics at first. Despite this, the game has achieved great success, perhaps because it has reached a wider user group.
7. “Rise of Kingdoms” (released in September 2018)
Then we will talk about “Awakening of Nations”, the development team has developed the real-time strategy element in the 4X mobile game to another level.
For many years, the strategic elements in this type of mobile game have been stagnant, and developers have just added a little new tricks to the old routine. The emergence of miracle shrines and territories is worth talking about, but in fact, most designs are just superimposing other elements on the same gameplay. The “Awakening of Nations” changed this point and provided several new models.
In the past ten years, the marching features in strategy games have not changed much. Players issue instructions to make their army march towards the destination, solve the enemy, and then return, that’s it. I don’t know if it is for technical reasons or simply lack of ambition, developers have no intention to work on this area. In all these previous games, the most basic world map mechanism has remained unchanged.
The “Awakening of Nations” team advertised that this game is real-time combat + unlimited marching, but this does not exactly explain how they changed the basic game mechanics of 4X games and promoted more diversified strategies.
First of all, the battle is not an instant victory. The two armies engage in a battle for a period of time. During this period, the army can be withdrawn, reinforcements can appear, and the outcome of the battle can be changed. This creates a more realistic and dynamic environment, creating more opportunities for contingency gameplay.
This is what the team calls unlimited marching. March is no longer a simple round trip. Now, players can change lanes in the middle, or stop all of them and set up camp. In addition, interceptions can also be carried out during the march. Taken together, players have a series of optional strategic actions. For example, after the army sets off, you can order several targets to attack one after another, causing a melee. The invaders can cooperate with their marches to invade and besiege the enemy’s land and block the residents of the city. Since the player can now attack the marching in the middle, it is now impossible to penetrate the enemy’s territory unharmed. Geographical factors can now have a greater impact.
Speaking of this, the map itself has also improved. In previous iterations, marching can pass through water, mountains, and other cities unimpeded, and the developers handled it very casually. However, in “The Awakening of the Nations”, these topography have become obstacles and need to find another route. This formed a natural blocking point on the map and became a target for everyone to compete.
Incorporating time and space factors into the strategy has promoted new dimensions of the battle and more diversified game content. Take the time factor as an example. It allows the hero to have a series of different skills, such as continuous damage effects, healing effects, gains within a specific blood value range, and so on. Different areas in the game can bring different advantages, so marching speed becomes the key.
The marching mechanism of “Awakening of Nations” has achieved a qualitative change compared with previous games.
In addition to the march, there are many meaningful improvements, and I won’t explain them here. Infinite zoom maps, fog (although most of them are just for decoration), and an hour-long alliance battle activities, the mastery of new mechanisms is crucial to victory.
The game has undergone a major transformation based on the previous-generation 4X design formula. Building, research, heroes, sacred sites and their unique territorial system and KvK, the 8-party alliance can continue to fight for months, which is completely different from other games.
All in all, whether you are a new player who intends to try this type of game, or a hardcore player looking for the latest and greatest game, “World Awakening” is a great choice not to be missed.
discuss in depth
From the perspective of game design, there are three details worth mentioning. They play an important role in shaping the gameplay and profitability. Unless you are a veteran player of the game, these details are easily overlooked.
The first is the combination of design decisions and responsive gameplay, which can allow the environment to accommodate more players and significantly reduce their mortality rate, prompting them to immerse themselves in the game longer. For example, the death rules of hospitals and troops, in low-risk situations, the fault tolerance rate of the game is relatively high, and the casualty rate is lower. However, this poses a greater risk to potential aggressors. In addition, the march can be intercepted in the middle, and there are fewer cases of high-level play to plunder low-level players-this is one of the problems that strategy game players often complain. “Return to zero”-that is, the player has lost all of their troops. This will still happen, but it has been reduced a lot. The most important thing is that if you want to win in KvK, cooperation is necessary, which can stimulate all parties to unite and form a strong cohesion. The result of this is that after the initial conflict period, most of the successfully surviving alliances can be reorganized and cooperated friendly. The only major conflict only occurs in KvK. As time goes by, the game actually avoids zeroing other than KvK, and players will not give up the game early because they are crushed to the point that there is no slag left.
Second, the profit strategy is very sustainable. After careful data collection, coupled with some information that can be directly obtained in the game, the development team can conduct a detailed assessment of the consumption habits of certain players. During my evaluation period, the profitability of the game is very good (not to mention the detailed figures), which is several times higher than the latter competitors. As for whale players, a large part of their consumption seems to be to obtain limited hero content (some heroes can only be obtained by participating in competition in the event). Players hope that other forms of content can be consumed, especially research and military, which can bring more income in seasonal activities.
In order to give everyone a general understanding of the data, the following figure shows the consumption behavior of a top league within a month.
80% of revenue comes from players who spend more than $1,000.
In addition, the game’s profit strategy is already very friendly in F2P games, and the advantages that paying players get in the game are not as great as those in general competitive games. I found that the 10 yuan gift package provides about four times more advantages in “Kingdom” than in “Awakening of Nations”. Therefore, non-paying players are not completely at a disadvantage, and paying players need to pay more for the advantages they want. In addition, just like many games, when someone buys certain gift packs, their alliance members will also benefit, get speedups or other types of items. The final balance strategy is this: if you can become the top alliance in your service area, even if you are a non-paying player, you can unlock all the main content except heroes-under normal circumstances, players need to invest thousands of dollars and cost the same It takes a long time to unlock, so this reward is still considerable.
In order to let everyone have a clearer feeling, let me talk about an interesting thing: Although I play these strategy games very much, I have never spent a cent on internal purchases. In less than a year, I was able to unlock the most advanced army, and when I left the game I sold my account for a four-digit price. This price is not feasible in other types of games.
On the other hand, we have to talk about the gains and losses of developers. If players who do not purchase in-app purchases can unlock the top troops within this time period, then paying players will of course be faster. As a result, the game loses its main driver of payment at a fairly early stage. There are still other means of monetization in the game, but they are not as tempting as completing research and unlocking top troops. It is conceivable that the income of non-whale players of the game will be significantly reduced. Inadvertently, this may create a more fierce competitive environment for whale players, allowing them to continue to invest money and enhance their advantages. Considering that their consumption accounts for more than 80% of the total income, perhaps this is a choice worth weighing.
The third involves the impact of peaceful coexistence between alliances-in contrast to the 2-month-long KvK melee. KvK may be very fierce, and it can also effectively stimulate player consumption. At least players who participate in the battle for the first time will be easily moved. However, considering the intensity of the melee, the consequences and potential losses may not be trivial. Although this situation does not happen every time KvK, once the player has an idea of the cost, the leaders of the service area can foresee that their life will not be better, and they are not sure to sweep the enemy. May choose peaceful means to share the rewards together. The same is true for individual alliances.
This also triggered a related chain reaction. If KvK reaches a settlement soon, it will be difficult for the entire service area to compete again, which is not a good result. However, if KvK does not end in this way, such fierce events are not suitable for frequent performances. The end result is that after the mentally tense KvK is over, players return to their service area and can enjoy a few months of peaceful time. This is quite abnormal, and the daily income of games will definitely be affected. In terms of encouraging players to form regular consumption habits, such intermittent warfare does not seem to be an ideal method. Players now don’t have to spend money on battles. Doesn’t this just provide them with a good opportunity to get rid of in-app purchase habits? Even the collective is not online anymore?
Although these issues may limit the potential of the game to some extent, “The Awakening of the Nations” is undoubtedly a major advancement in the history of 4X mobile games.
How will it develop in the future?
The 4X strategy mobile game has been booming for ten years and will not stop in the years to come. They have evolved into what they are today after many changes, and the threshold and indicators of the game will be higher and higher in the future.
We can’t help asking: “What will the next evolution look like?”
I have predicted and actively used some 4X strategy elements, after which they have also achieved breakthrough success-certainly not all. How do you know that a particular design pattern is about to rise? In fact, most of them are easy to see. The key is that you know how to find the right place to observe.
In terms of gameplay, players who like strategy will want more strategic elements. In many ways, the 4X strategy mobile game is indeed trying to catch up with PC games. You look at the original “Warcraft” or even earlier games. The gameplay they provide is on the current mobile platform, and only the most cutting-edge strategy mobile games have. More specifically, unlimited marching and real-time battles only appeared in 2018, and “Warcraft” has been released for more than 20 years. From a technical point of view, it is indeed difficult to implement in MMO games. It is no wonder that the 4X strategy mobile game took so long to develop to this point. But as developers continue to work hard, these elements will eventually find suitable applications in mobile games.
So as a player or a developer, I want to know how the next step will develop, but the answer is already there.
For example, the common airborne troops in RTS games broaden the space for us to display. We are no longer just ground-to-ground forces, but have ground-to-air, air-to-ground, air-to-air, ground-to-all or air-to-all attack types.
Congratulations, you just discovered a lot of interesting combinations, content and strategies.
You can even change some basic design, similar to the style of “Civilization”-the units on the map move slowly and gradually, with better real-time performance, and can restrict and block the freedom of movement of the enemy.
This will definitely cause new problems, but it can provide new strategies and gameplay.
There are many more methods worth trying, whether in RTS games or not. For example, the territory system appeared in MMORPG very early.
Capital ships, attacks with weapons of mass destruction, troop transport units, spies… I believe that when you think about the possibilities of the game, you must think of more than these.
For those who want to succeed in strategy games, the cost of development will become higher and higher. It will become increasingly difficult for small developers to raise funds to form such a team. The teams that can be funded will need to face high stakes.
But for those players who like this kind of games, there should only be more things that delight you in the next few years. For those with a vision, making a good 4X game will bring you huge trophies.
Author: David Chung
Source: Game State