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The “+1″ Mobile Game Design Strategy
by Joseph Kim on 06/25/13 03:11:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



History and Context:

In the winter of 2008, I launched my first game: it was a social game on Facebook and MySpace called League of Heroes. At the time, Mob Wars and Friends for Sale had just recently launched and Mafia Wars by Zynga and Mobsters by Playdom were just launching. As many of you probably know, Mafia Wars/Mobsters were just direct rips of Mob Wars... what I will later refer to as a "horizontal" strategy.

Back then I wanted to create something different but not depart too far from the mechanics that seemed to really work. At the time, I called my game design strategy a "+1" strategy meaning that I wanted to take an existing set of core mechanics but add at least one core gameplay change or advancement to the game to make it better. I just couldn't respect a direct rip.

In the League of Heroes context, it was the very first game on any social platform to integrate GVG (Guild vs. Guild) and that most effectively integrated social behavior and cooperation into a game. Users would work together in leagues (effectively guilds) of heroes or villains and fight against each other. Further, the actions of one person in your league could impact your rewards and your health. The rest of the game was basically Mob Wars.

The game design worked very well as it was one of the most highly monetizing games on a per user basis at the time (ARPDAU of $0.20 during the heyday, in a mobile context you usually multiply that by x3). Let me clarify by saying I'm not trying to impress anyone with this... to be clear, the game was a very small game (launched by myself in my spare time), I never really got it to scale (lots of tech issues) and I really sucked back then at UI and user flows amongst other things... so I didn't state the above to try to impress you but to impress upon you the effectiveness of "+1".

"Horizontal" vs. "Vertical":

Peter Thiel teaches a class at Stanford in which he describes technological progress in two ways: Horizontal and Vertical.

Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive. Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.” Consider what China will be like in 50 years. The safe bet is it will be a lot like the United States is now. Cities will be copied, cars will be copied, and rail systems will be copied. Maybe some steps will be skipped. But it’s copying all the same.

Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.” Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization).

In the context of typical mobile game design strategies we have seen these kinds of approaches in our industry with a predominant focus on horizontal game design e.g., Zynga, Playdom, Storm8, PocketGems, TinyCo, etc.

An Overview of Strategic Approaches:

A few years ago I presented this slide to a number of investors and industry folks that represented the key strategies of mobile game companies at the time:

Primary Mobile Gaming Strategies (2011)

I argued that the superior approach would be the "+1" strategy over time even though it seemed to most then that distribution would continue to be the most effective strategy for the foreseeable future. Today, this is certainly what has emerged as the dominant strategy for game success.

These days, I take a much more simplistic view of game design strategy and view it more from the perspective of Peter Thiel's horizontal vs. vertical approach. For me, there's really now only 3 key approaches:

  1. Horizontal Design: Just copy an existing game but use brand, distribution, network, geography, genre, etc. to compete in the marketplace
  2. Vertical Design: You are trying to design something where much or most of the game is new. This is getting from "0 to 1".
  3. +1 Design: You are basing your game design off of a core set of mechanics and game type but improving or changing 1 key aspect of the game

 Why +1 Is Winning:

+1 is winning because of the market and the current ecosystem that we have. There are good aspects to this and bad.

First, let's talk about why +1 wins in this space (that is mobile gaming) and where the other strategies win.

In the beginning of the mobile gaming industry, during the "Tapjoy Mafia" days (I'll write about this some other day) distribution was the key basis of competition and so ripping games with successful metrics on mobile worked the best. Back then only a few people had the inside knowledge of how effective Tapjoy/Offerpal was at getting users to mobile games (and understood how much and how to spend on Tapjoy) and they could just copy other designs and pump those games.

Later, Apple cracked down on incentivized distribution to game the App Store's install velocity based charting algorithms and we began to slowly see a shift of power from companies that competed solely on distribution (all the Tapjoy Mafia) and increasingly towards companies that competed with game design or both (e.g., Supercell &

The reason why +1 wins in today's market is for the following reasons:

  1. Horizontal Lacks Distribution Advantage: No one besides Apple/Google significantly controls distribution anymore so increasingly there is advantage in having a more vertical or +1 vs. horizontal strategy that has a better chance of getting featured by the guys who actually do control distribution
  2. Copying is Slow: We are in a pretty massive mobile gaming bubble (which is currently in the process of popping) that has created a major talent shortage making it increasingly difficult to have good fast teams that can copy winning game designs. For example, I've heard of more than a few studios who now have 12 month development times for many of their games because of blah, blah, blah... but the translation really being that there is a major talent shortage and so a team of an A guy, a few B and C guys, and that D guy who keeps screwing up leads to major delays.
  3. Distribution is a Bi-yatch: Most importantly, because of how difficult and expensive distribution is once a +1 game is taking off and it has a major time advantage to gain users and build a war chest, it's increasingly difficult for horizontal players to come in with a similar game. It's not impossible but much more difficult.

Then what about Vertical vs. +1?

Vertical happens but has been much more rare. Vertical is hard to do so typically comes with a much higher failure rate. Further, what I've seen are instances of fairly brilliant vertical game designs that hit the market but are not fully formed. It's usually the +1 on the vertical design that really garners the majority of the market and creates the most value.

Let's take a non-mobile example: League of Legends for PCs

  1. Initial brilliant vertical game design: Aeon of Strife (AoS) for StarCraft
  2. +1 to AoS = Defense of the Ancients (DotA) for Warcraft 3
  3. +1 to DotA = League of Legends

Let's now take a look at a mobile example: Clash of Clans

  1. Initial brilliant vertical game design: "Autumn Tower Defense" map created in Warcraft 3 (PC RPG)
  2. +1 to Autumn Tower Defense = Desktop Tower Defense (PC Web)
  3. +1 to Desktop Tower Defense = Backyard Monsters and Edgeworld on Facebook (Web Social)
  4. +1 to Backyard Monsters and Edgeworld = Clash of Clans (Mobile)

We still see examples of winning horizontal game designs (e.g., branded card battle games/Temple Run/Evony clones/etc.) as well as vertical game designs (e.g., Temple Run, Tiny Wings) but as an overall strategy the huge winners for now and for the foreseeable future in my opinion will be the games that +1...

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Phil Maxey
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Very interesting article, and it's an issue I've struggled with over the years as I'm someone who's instincts are always to go down the vertical path, but I learned a long time ago that getting success in the vertical approach is akin to winning the lottery, especially if you are a lone/indie developer. If you have an already established network (on mobile or off), have stacks of cash lying around or lots of time on your hands then vertical is fine, for the other 99% though you need to be wiser in what projects you delve into.

You are much more "guaranteed" some form of success if you base your creations on what's already been proven to work.

However my own analysis would be much simpler then vertical/horizontal/+1.

You mention Supercell and King. Candy Crush Saga is at it's heart a very very simple game, that's been polished extremely well, but it's still a very simple game. There's nothing stopping any other game company from producing the same game, but would they have the same success? I would say they wouldn't unless they could match King's networking reach.

In regards to CoC, again a fairly simple gameplay mechanic that has been brilliantly focused for monetization and as far as I know been advertised far and wide, which of course costs money.

So I would describe it more as Network/cash Vs Luck. If you have an established network or cash to promote then you can push a simple game, a complicated game, any kind of game you want as long as it's polished and you will have success because the biggest issue with any of the app stores is getting your product noticed by enough people to reach critical mass where promotion becomes more or less self-sustaining through word of mouth.

If you don't have an established network or cash, then it's all down to luck. It can be an original game, or a "based" on something that is already out there but those factors won't make a blind bit of difference to the games success or not. You can increase your chances if your game is actually good, or polished or if you happen to know someone in the media who can put a spot light on your game, but essentially it's luck if you have success or not.

This is why getting a network established is probably the single most important thing that a developer can try to achieve, and why many developers use "simple" games to drive traffic to more important releases.

Joseph Kim
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Hey Phil, I agree with you that Candy Crush _significantly_ benefited from their "network" e.g., Facebook audience and a moment in time when Facebook was greatly prioritizing mobile news feed posts. Further, they benefitted from Applift and a dramatic increase in relatively higher quality mobile CPI inventory at the time.

However, one issue I think you should reconsider is the product related success factors behind Candy Crush and what I consider to be CC's +1. It was fairly brilliant game design.

So, although at it's core CC is a match-3 game with basic match-3 mechanics what King did well was to steal the Anipong hearts/energy model which had shown to monetize well on Kakao. Further, they added stateful gameplay and visual progression (thereby increasing retention) through "levelizing" the PVE map. On top of that, they made the game more interesting by introducing additional gameplay variations e.g., timed levels, recipe drops, elimination of jelly, etc.

On top of all of that, they essentially created a new category of app monetization: a hybrid between free to play and paid. CC is in fact incremental paid as they have introduced hard gates every 20 or so puzzles. Essentially understanding that casual games often monetize better as paid and creating an alternative payment model.

In all, the additions may be somewhat "small" but in fact even the right small change can be the difference between success and failure.

Phil Maxey
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I totally agree with what you say there, but you have to ask yourself even taking into account all the extra refinement that King has brought to match-3, if an indie developer had released a similar game would it of reached the success CC has? I think the answer has to be "no" to that (unless like I said he/she got lucky).

I get what you are saying that the tiniest of things can make a big difference. I created a web match-3 game called Christmas Crunch (ha CC again), which has had over 180 million plays, and I found when trying to create a sequel that even changing the smallest aspect of it would mess up the gameplay, so I understand that on the surface these games can seem very simple but success can be a fine line. However even with taking all of that into account, originally Christmas Crunch only took me 5 days to create (back in 2008), so these games refinement or not are still very easy for people to create/replicate and as such there are lots of them on the App store already.

I would argue that it's King's already established network (along with I presume a decent size ad spent) that has allowed it's particular match-3 game to succeed as it has, much more so than any kind of new refinement it has brought to the genre.

I do agree though that the +1 approach is definitely a wise path to take.

Joseph Kim
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Hey Phil, absolutely no disagreement that an indie developer would not have reached the success CC has to the degree they have. It was a perfect storm of game design, distribution, existing network, Facebook shift to mobile, etc. etc. as well as having the resources and knowledge to push the game.

I do contend though that an indie dev can be successful without luck... it's just really, really, really difficult. I talk about some of the core barriers for indie's to succeed in another blog post here: