I’ve spent the last few years thinking about dragons.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to make a kick-ass game centered on dragons. Even more specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to make a mobile game about dragons that felt and played like a triple-A game.
After a lot of late-night discussions and tons of hard work by myself and countless others, all of this meditation has finally begun to pay off. A few months ago, Pocket Gems launched War Dragons, a real-time strategy multiplayer game with console-quality 3D graphics. We traded the pets and campuses of our past games for dragons and catapults to create something that was a huge departure for the company.
It was a sizable undertaking for the team that required us to retool our development process and build an all-new tech stack from the ground up, the Mantis Engine. We spent a lot of time prototyping, experimenting, and having company-wide playtests to create a title that played like a triple-A game.
Creating a fun multiplayer 3D game was a challenging process. It took a lot of stumbles, missteps and tear-soaked QA devices to get it right. Here’s four things we learned along the way that I wanted to share with you.
Community is exponentially more important to hardcore players
People have different definitions of what makes a triple-A game. Is it graphics? Game length? Does the platform matter? Is it an expression of the product itself, or the way that people play it?
I’d argue that the main tenet of creating a triple-A game is fostering a strong community.
Community is something that mobile has struggled to get right for a long time. In the early days of mobile, “community” was synonymous with “pestering your friends to send your farm virtual strawberries.” We all know how well that played out.
It turns out that the answer to nailing a strong a community was sitting in front of us for 20 years in beloved games from companies like Blizzard and Rockstar. What I’m talking about is fostering meaningful connections between players and giving them the tools they need to do that, whether they’re trying to wipe each out or work together.
With War Dragons, we’ve recognized the real power and significance of guilds. Since launch, the game has had more 16,000 active guilds formed, and this has prompted active players to engage in about 80 battles a day on average. In the game, your guild is your brothers and sisters in arms. You go to war together, you pool resources to build better defenses, and you learn strategy from each other through team chat and wikis. Guilds have become a surefire way to help players form an emotional connection with the game.
The effectiveness of guilds in War Dragons reflects the importance of real community and genuine human interaction in games. When you can give players a conflict with the game, they’ll like it. When you can give players a conflict with each other, they love it.
Casual casts a wide net; hardcore tosses a spearhead
In the early days of mobile, it was enough to be first to market with a game. You’d work hard to make a solid game and then unleash it to the world. In the following days and weeks, you’d bring in more players and fine-tune the game to their wants and needs, building a dedicated fan base.
But this is no longer the case. Hardware is getting better, mobile network speeds are improving, and players generally expect more from their games. If you don’t give them a consistently entertaining game that they love, they have plenty of other choices.
We’ve found this also affects how players find your game. Since launching War Dragons, we’ve seen that a strong audience begins with a much smaller pool of dedicated players that you build upon, as opposed to a huge influx of more casual players.
With War Dragons, we’ve been able to build a really solid community around our super-engaged players- leveraging their behavior and feedback to create an awesome gameplay experience.
Your early power-players are crucial to evolving the game through feedback and data. They also play the game a lot. Looking at player rankings, we see that higher-level dedicated players put in exponentially more time. The top 10 percent of our most active players currently account for about 75 percent of the total playtime.
Of course, some of this has to do with differences in marketing for casual and hardcore players, which leads me to my next point. …
Hardcore players don’t fully trust mobile yet
This is probably a good point to stop and talk more about some of the terms I’ve been using, specifically “hardcore.” The truth is a lot of games companies use “hardcore” as a filler word when they mean something else.
Many companies define their “hardcore fan” as the “person who spends the most money.” I think a what defines a hardcore fan should be how much a player enjoys your game, i.e., the how much time, not money, they spend in your game.
No matter your definition, a lot of hardcore players still don’t regard mobile as a legitimate platform for AAA games. This is partially because many mobile developers have destroyed gamer trust with with things like aggressive F2P tactics and game cloning. However, if you look at the today’s mobile landscape you can see that the ship is correcting itself.
Mobile games are getting better. Titles like Vainglory, Dominations and Rival Kingdoms all offer something that hardcore players really enjoy once they give them a chance. Now that most big mobile developers see the potential in that, this trend isn’t going anywhere.
Secondly, a lot of trusted triple-A brands are putting out serious mobile offerings. In the last year we’ve seen great games from the Halo, Warcraft, and Fallout franchises on mobile.
We’re rapidly approaching a time where the lines between “mobile gamer” and “hardcore gamer” will dissolve until we can all just get back to simply being gamers.
Reaching hardcore gamers on mobile is hard
If you close your eyes and listen closely, you can hear a soft chorus of repeating thuds off in the distance. This is the sound of thousands of mobile marketers banging their heads against walls trying to figure out how to reach hardcore gamers on mobile.
One obstacle that we’ve run into with War Dragons was figuring out the best ways to reach our ideal players. Cross-promotion wasn’t as appealing since players from our other games are not really best fit for War Dragons.
It’s also much harder to identify and reach an ideal player through traditional mobile marketing channels. When you’re creating unique gaming experiences that don’t have clearly defined comps, traditional marketing can be a headache.
We’ve found that when you’re trying to reach a hardcore audience, the creative marketing assets go a long way. You need to let the player know immediately that they won’t be destroying any candy in your game. From the game icon to the landing page, investing in badass marketing creatives will pay off tenfold for you — like in this video at the top of the post.
Harlan Crystal is the co-founder and CTO of Pocket Gems, a leading developer of mobile games and entertainment.