A handful of ambitious new games have come out for mobile devices. Each of them is claiming that they’re they next generation of triple A-quality games, or the equivalent of console-quality games on mobile devices. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. And the question is whether this new era has finally come. I’ve played some of these new games, and I’ve tried to apply some thinking that I learned at our recent GamesBeat Summit event.
The start of this new generation arguably began with Vainglory‘s launch last fall. It is a beautiful game, built with a proprietary 3D graphics engine, with the aim of taking the multiplayer online battle arena on the PC to the tablet. But that game hasn’t yet made a dent in the top-grossing charts. Other possible next-generation games have debuted more recently, including DomiNations from Big Huge Games and Nexon; Empires & Allies from Zynga; Rival Kingdoms: Age of Ruin from Space Ape; and War Dragons from Pocket Gems. Each one of these titles represent an impressive amount of work from seasoned game developers. They’re very serious attempts to unseat the leaders.
On the surface, the makers of Clash of Clans, Game of War: Fire Age, and Candy Crush Saga don’t have much to worry about yet. They still occupy the top three ranks in the app stores on the top-grossing lists, according to market researcher App Annie.
Clash of Clans is making at least $80 million a month, and it was the biggest chunk of revenue for Supercell’s $1.7 billion in revenue last year. Candy Crush Saga is generating maybe $72 million a month, based on King’s earnings report. That adds up to $216 million a quarter or $864 million from a single casual game. Machine Zone is also making enough money to create a very expensive advertising campaign with supermodel Kate Upton, including a Super Bowl ad.
These games are generating so much money that they can each afford to buy up all of the mobile ad inventory at any given moment. That makes them very powerful. If they see another game rising in the charts, they can spend against that game, suck all of the air out of the ad market, and then watch that rival fall in the rankings.
They make very juicy targets, and everyone wants to knock them out. John Riccitiello, chief executive of Unity, estimated at our GamesBeat Summit that there are 200 Clash of Clans clones coming. Some of those are surely going to fail. But it won’t be hard to build slightly better Clash of Clans games, especially if you’re starting from the ground up.
The problem these clones will run into is switching costs. Players are addicted to the social aspects of these games. Their friends are playing with them, and they’re part of clans that have tight-knit loyalty. A game has to be really good just to get these people to leave their social group and try something new.
Kent Wakeford, chief operating officer of Kabam, said at our GamesBeat Summit last week that you can’t shoot for the top 100 ranks and hope to succeed anymore. To make it and generate enough revenue to get a real return on investment, you have to shoot for the top 10. His company is trying to do that with its Marvel: Contest of Champions title, and it may very well have a shot. But it’s a long slog to climb up the ranks, and advertising costs are huge.
I’ve been playing Supercell’s Boom Beach since it came out in November 2013, and I’ve played Kabam’s The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth since it debuted in March 2013. But they’re not especially fun. It’s more out of a habit or lack of anything better to do. Now I’m feeling like I’ve got some better things to do, but I do feel some measure of loyalty to my clan in The Hobbit. That is my second clan, since my first one kicked me out because I didn’t spend money and grow fast enough for them. This second clan recently decided to move over to play DomiNations as a group. They are still playing The Hobbit, but they’re more excited about DomiNations.
I haven’t yet found a home in a clan in DomiNations, but I haven’t played it for a ton of time yet either. I’ve also tried out Empires & Allies, Rival Kingdoms, and War Dragons. They are certainly more fun than Clash of Clans of Game of War. The new games have better graphics. They’re still constrained by the limitations of mobile devices, but they make use of 3D, and they use realistic art styles.
I never cared much for the cartoon art style of Clash of Clans or the distant, strategic view of Game of War. The realistic art style makes me feel like I’m playing a real game, rather than tinkering with toy soldiers. When I play these new games, I feel like I’m part of the cast in a movie or I’m engrossed in a story. And the mobile devices I’m using, while still fairly limited and mainstream, are good enough to give me that wow feeling I get when I play a great-looking game on a console or the PC. They have great sound effects and fast movement.
These new games are still not worthy of the console-like moniker. When you tap on a character, he or she spouts lines of text. They don’t, for the most part, talk and move in a way that reminds you of the best cinematic effects in console games. They’re not even close on that front. They are also asynchronous experiences, where you attack someone and watch it unfold, with a limited amount of interactivity. That interactivity is getting better, but you are not fighting an enemy in real-time where the enemy can make concurrent moves against you.
In Empires & Allies, you build up your base much like you did in the old Command & Conquer games on the PC. But you can’t control units 100 percent. You can set them loose and watch them flood over the map. There’s some clever interaction, though, in the Hellfire missiles or strafing runs you can send against the hardest enemy emplacements. So when you attack a base, you can make a real difference by tapping the screen in the right place to initiate an aerial attack. If the enemy has placed antiaircraft domes correctly, they may shoot down your aircraft. That makes the game feel more interactive, and it means there are more surprises in the battle. I really like the art work, but it does feel a bit like I’ve played this game before in the age of C&C on the PC.
In DomiNations, the combat is very similar to Clash of Clans, with some interaction that is similar to Empires & Allies. But the game feels a lot more like Civilization, where you progress through the ages and expand your base by carefully grooming the economy. It’s kind of a grind though. If you break down and spend money, you can speed up your progress in building.
Rival Kingdoms has pretty, realistic art as well. You fight other players in multiplayer battles, in an asynchronous fashion. The cool interactive part is you can unleash spells that bring down a meteor shower on your enemy. Those are attacks are quite spectacular and satisyfing.
War Dragons has some very cool battles where you guide your dragon to burn down an enemy’s fortress. Your finger is constantly busy in the game. And when you’re building up your forces, you can breed dragons and mix them to create new, more powerful creatures. The 3D graphics are spectacular for a mobile device, and this makes War Dragons stand out as the best-looking game of the bunch.
All of the new games are climbing up in the top 100 ranks, but will they make it to the top five? I don’t know if these features are going to be enough to knock out the oligopoly on top of the app stores. I’ve already stated the reasons why the status quo leading games, which grabbed the lead positions on the app stores and have cemented their hold, are going to be hard to dislodge.
Vainglory, which launched last fall, had everything going for it. It isn’t on the top-100 grossing games. Kristian Segerstrale, chief operating officer at Vainglory maker Super Evil Megacorp, said at our GamesBeat Summit that the game would only be in its beta stage if it were a PC game, and he noted League of Legends took a very long time to become the top PC online game. Segerstrale showed stats that show interest in the game is climbing, and Super Evil Megacorp is making headway in establishing the game in e-sports. He noted that just looking at the top-grossing charts doesn’t tell you everything, and one day, one of the big games will catch us unawares by how quickly it will knock out the leaders. Segerstrale argued we need new metrics, such as measuring how much play time and buzz a game is getting within a hardcore fan community.
“Great gaming franchises have always been built by the community,” Segerstrale said. “Nothing that is a big gaming franchise today has ever been built overnight. It takes weeks, months, years.”
He added, “Every time, we are measured through the metrics of the previous generation. If it’s not in the top 10 in the first two weeks, it should be killed. That’s true for the previous generation. With this generation, however, you cannot acquire your engaged community overnight.”
I’m open to being patient. And I also want to hear about other recommendations for AAA games on mobile. But these have gotten the most attention, and I think a lot of people are curious about them. I hope they take off, since the companies involved worked on the titles for a long time and spent a lot of money in development. But it won’t be easy for them to penetrate the top five and create some turnover on the static top-grossing games chart.
I’m eagerly awaiting some other high-end mobile games as well, like Zynga’s Dawn of Titans. And I hope there is more coming. But one thing is for sure. We are at a time when the quality of a mobile game makes the difference, not the quantity of games a company can launch.