Commanding Troops on Touch Devices - Why Mobile is the perfect Platform for Strategy MMOs
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
At Fishlabs, we’ve been making high-quality 3D mobile games for more than 8 years. While we’ve mostly focused on action, sports and racing games in the past, we’re now about to tackle another genre as well, namely the strategy MMO. In the course of this blog, we’d like to give you some firsthand insight on our new title Galaxy on Fire - Alliances and illustrate why mobile has – at least in our opinion – outstripped the PC browser as the perfect platform for these kinds of games. To offer a broad and comprehensive approach, we will investigate this topic from both a developer’s and a publisher’s perspective. Consequently, we will not only show why mobile is a more than promising market for MMOS, but we will also point out the distinct features of touch devices that are particularly well-suited for multiplayer strategy games.
Browser Games – Time to pass the Torch
Thanks to their low entry barrier, easy accessibility and motivating multiplayer gameplay, browser games took the gaming industry by storm in the late 1990s, when an ever-growing number of households got connected to the web. In recent years, however, the browser games industry has not been able to continue its rapid rise but rather has it experienced a phase of consolidation, with leading companies laying off staff and pulling the plug on million-dollar-projects due to rising cost of user acquisition, dwindling player numbers and an overall market saturation. And though a number of other factors have most likely played a role in this development as well, one key reason for this decline can surely be found in the recent advent of a tough competitor to the browser game, namely the mobile game. With top titles such as “Clash of Clans” or “Kingdoms of Camelot” turning in six- or seven-figure revenues per day from tens of millions of monthly active users, there should be little doubt that we’re currently experiencing a new era of conjoint gaming, which is no longer taking place on the computer screen but on the touch screen. In the following, we’d like to investigate this “changing of the guard” a bit further and examine why mobile does indeed constitute the best possible platform for certain game types, such as strategy MMOs.
Install Base & Self-Publishing – Get your Game out to Tens of Millions of Users all by yourself
According to Deloitte , the combined number of activated and used (!) smartphones and tablets will have surpassed 1.75 billion by the end of 2013. Moreover, we’ve already been able to record more than 50 million app downloads on both the Apple App Store and Google Play, more than 50% of which have been generated over the past 12 months. And, considering the booming, vibrant nature of the mobile industry, an end to this development is not yet in sight. For developers, this means that they can now open up a very auspicious and extremely fruitful market, which is not only incredibly huge but also comparatively easy to access. Thanks to seamlessly integrated app stores on smart connected devices, gaming studios can now reach out to tens or even hundreds of millions of potential players around the world all by themselves, without teaming up with an external publisher. And that new-found autonomy is something that could hardly be underestimated, because it means that studios no longer rely on the financial muscle of external partner. Take Supercell, for example. The less-than-100-strong Finnish company runs total of two games (Hay Day and Clash of Clans) on one platform (iOS) and still turns in astronomical revenues day after day . Of course, it’s a one-of-a-kind success story that will most likely not be reproduced any time soon. But even if you think in smaller scales and diminish the numbers proportionately, you’ll still find that mobile can be an incredibly lucrative market for established and uprising studios alike. Obviously, where there’s opportunity, there’s also competition. So if you want to make it on mobile and stick out of the mass, you really need an outstanding product with a top-notch presentation and strong USP to leave your rivals in the dust. In case of Galaxy on Fire - Alliances, the most crucial aspects of the game that will (hopefully) set it apart from similar titles are its high-end 3D graphics and easily-accessible alliance and PvP gameplay. While the elaborate visuals (including little gadgets such as fully rotatable/zoomable 3D planets and structures) “suck” the players deeper into the game by providing them with additional means to “play around” and interact with the things they see on the screen, the strong focus on teamplay caters for additional motivation to stick with the game over a particularly long period of time. Because nothing keeps players hooked like the possibility to share their gaming experience with friends and peers. Therefore, we’ve made it particularly easy for people to communicate with each other inside of the app and coordinate their actions (such as carrying out attacks or sending backup troops) in accordance to one another. Here, we also benefit from the fact that the “download to active users” ratio on mobile is particularly high, due to the fact that the game is always accessible on a smart connected device and in most cases no sing-up is required to play a free mobile game.
Wearable Computing – Our Apps are with us 24 Hours a Day and 365 Days a Year
Let’s be honest. How many times have you left your flat in the past couple of weeks without carrying your smartphone with you? Okay, you might have forgotten to slip your iPhone or Droid into your pocket one or two times when you’ve been in a hurry, but other than that I’m pretty sure you’ve always had your phone right there by your side. And that’s just natural, because we’ve reached a state in which our mobile devices are almost as essential a part of our get-up as our shoes, trousers or belts. Flurry calls this phenomenon “wearable computing” and describes the phenomenon as follows: “Wearable computing already arrived with the smartphone. Our data confirms what many of us know from experience: smartphones, tablets and the apps installed on them appear to be glued to consumers 24/7, 365. They are with us when we wake, work, exercise, eat, play and yes, even when we sleep” . Naturally, this also leads to a shift in user behavior. In late 2011, users had already spend a total of 94 minutes per day with their apps, as opposed to “only” 72 minutes of normal web consumption.  And the spread between these numbers has only gotten bigger in recent months and years. If you now keep in mind that games still make up for on third of all mobile usage  and that the average gaming session on mobile is constantly getting longer and longer , all you need to do is add up the numbers to see how fruitful an environment the mobile market is for ambitious game developing studios. Unfortunately, I don’t have any concrete data from another mobile strategy MMO at hand and it’s still too early to release any data from our own Closed Beta of Galaxy on Fire - Alliances, so I have to refrain to a differing kind of mobile game, namely FIFA 13, for additional numbers. According to the title’s Senior Director Mike McCabe, the mobile version of bestselling soccer simulation registered 5-7 daily sessions with a total playtime of 45 minutes in early October 2012, roughly a month after its official launch on the App Store . Though the overall playtime per user might still be higher on PC or console, it’s relatively safe to say that the majority of Xbox 360 or PS3 players do not boot their consoles up to 7 times a day, just to play a single match. On mobile, however, that’s quite certainly the case. And it is to be expected that the players will log in to a strategy MMO, whose snackable gameplay is specifically designed for that kind of user behavior, even more often – especially when even a small action can have a significant impact and when the players are also kept up-to-date about the progress of the game via push notifications.
Ubiquitous Connectivity – Play wherever and whenever you want
The whole wearable computing thing becomes even more substation when you consider the fact that almost every smart device is non-stop connected to the internet these days. Even if you haven’t got a WiFi connection established, you will in most cases still be able to access the web via LTE, 3G or Edge – unless you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere or locked up in a high-security prison cell, of course. Therefore, you can play a multiplayer strategy MMO on your phone wherever you are and whenever you want. In opposition to that, you can only play a PC browser game when you’re at home or sitting at your desk at work. And even if you’d be carrying a notebook with you, you’d still need a free WiFi spot or a portable internet stick to access the web. Plus, you’d also need to boot your OS, open your browser and start the game whenever you want to perform an action – a rather tedious process that you would hardly ever go through in order to to upgrade one building or relocate one unit. On smartphones or tablets, however, you can simply keep the app running in the background and open it with a single tap whenever you’ve got a little spare time on your hands. This means that you’ll be expanding your home base or commanding your troops at any given time, e.g. when you’re riding the bus, when you’re having your lunch break or when you’re waiting in the queue at the super market. Especially in times, when you don’t need a better connection than 3G or even Edge anymore to play a multiplayer game, this is an advantage that could hardly be overestimated! Because at the end of the day, it means that you no longer have to coordinate your gaming habits with your everyday routine. Instead, you can now make gaming – and even online gaming – an integral part of your daily life and literally play whenever you want and not only when you’ve got the time to sit down at your desk for an hour or two.
Snackable Gameplay – Even the smallest Gaming Session makes an Impact
The different user behavior, which results from mobile’s omni-presence in our daily lives, also leads to different gameplay mechanics on smartphones and tablets. Because here the entire game design is conceived in a way that allows for meaningful gaming sessions regardless of how much time you’re spending with the app. And right now, I can’t think of another genre, which benefits from this peculiar situation more than the strategy MMO. After all, progress is not a continuous stream of interlocking events in these kinds of games, but rather an ongoing interplay commands and latencies. You upgrade a building and then you wait for the upgrade to be finished. You send off your troops and then you wait for them to arrive. And so on. This means that you don’t have to be “in the game” all the time, but only when you’re about to perform another action. Consequently, you can literally enter the app several dozen times a day and only execute one or two small (but important!) commands each time. And you will still make significant progress. Such a “portioning” of the gaming experience is not possible in any other genre. Try to play a soccer game and leave the app after every goal you’ve scored, or play a jump’n’run and take a little time-out after every platform you’ve reached. It just wouldn’t work, would it? In a well-designed mobile strategy MMO, however, you can indeed only be logged in for 1 minute and perform one important action, such as launching a crucial attack, and it’ll have significant meaning for the further progress of the game. But on the other hand, you can also be logged in for several hours and perform a plethora of different actions without the game becoming repetitive or boring. You’re the one who sets the pace and since your device is always close-by anyway and since it’ll only take you a split second to access the app, you’ll most likely be much more willing to cramp as many small yet equally meaningful gaming sessions into your everyday routine as you can. And since every good game designer is well aware of the differing playing habits of mobile gamers, they’ll make sure that your actions in the game will always feel important, no matter whether it took you a minute or an hour to carry them out.
Touch Controls – Use intuitive Gestures to conquer entire Worlds
Most hardcore PC and console gamers will argue that the biggest advantage of their preferred platforms over mobile is the availability of keyboard, gamepad or joystick controls. At the end of the day, however, that’s a tough call to make, because it all comes down to habituality and practice. As games like Dead Trigger and Real Racing 3 have shown, even ego shooters and racing simulations – i.e. games with very fast-paced gameplay – can be incredibly good fun on touchscreen devices, if the controls are well-thought-out and ably executed. And for mobile strategy MMOs, the whole situation is even more eligible. Because here you don’t have to make quick turns or aim with utmost precision. So here’s where touch controls really shine, because they enable you to manage your bases, command your troops and communicate with your allies with just a few taps and swipes. In a user-friendly mobile strategy MMO, you can perform all actions intuitively right there on the screen, using nothing more than the tip of your finger. In Galaxy on Fire - Alliances, we’ve worked very hard to make the controls not only convenient and easy-to-use, but also an integral part of the game. By leveraging familiar gestures such as swipes and pinches, the players can manage their star bases, navigate their fleets and explore the star map both intuitively and effectively. All parts of the screen are touch-sensitive and every interaction leads to a direct result. Tapping a structure in the planet view opens the respective structure menu right away. Personally, I find this way more efficient and pleasant-to-use than the combination of mouse and keyboard you have to refrain to on the PC. Because on mobile you’re not controlling the game from the outside with the aid of external appliances, but instead you’re right there in the game, shaping the actions on the screen directly with your own hands.
Push Notifications – Keep Track of the latest Happenings even when you’re not Playing
Yeah, we all know it. Push notifications can be a real pain in the ass. But only if they’re being misused as unwished, obtrusive advertising tools. In a mobile strategy MMO, however, they can be invaluable assets that truly enhance your gaming experience. Because if you’ve got push notifications enabled, you don’t have to wait in the app until your high-level structure has been finished or your attack-ready fleet has reached its destination. Instead, you can close the app and do something else, like reading a blog or writing an email, and as soon as the action in question has been performed, you’ll be notified instantly. And all that it takes you to get back to the game is one tap on the display. Thanks to cleverly used push notifications, you don’t have to open the app repeatedly to check the progress of the latest action you’ve performed, but it will be more like you had some kinda personal assistant right there on your phone, who’d make sure that you won’t miss any of the upcoming happenings and events.
App Stores – Lowering the Entrance Barrier for Players and Developers alike
The global distribution of mobile games via app stores such as the Apple App Store or Google Play, which we’ve already been dealt with at the beginning of this article, is not the only big advantage of mobile as opposed to the PC browser. Since all mobile users have to create accounts at their respective app stores anyway, they’ll already be signed up by the time they’re about to check out your app. Therefore, they won’t have to go through any additional registration processes, but instead they can install the game in just a couple of minutes and get started right away. But, to be honest, that alone isn’t really an advantage of the app store distribution model over the PC browser, because – unless you’ve got to install a game client first – you can also get started rather quickly there. What’s way more convenient on mobile, however, is payment. Since the game is linked directly to your App Store or Google Play account, you don’t have to refrain to external services such as credit card payment, bank transfer or Paypal to make a micro-transaction for an IAP. For developers, this means that users are more willing to purchase DLCs, credit packs and other goodies, simply because it’s easier and more convenient to pay for these items or services. And for users, this means that the whole payment situation is quite a bit more straightforward and transparent. Because if you don’t have a credit card linked to your account, all you have to do is make sure that the balance on your account is not more than you wanna spend on apps and IAPs every month. If you’ve got to use Paypal or online banking anyway in order to buy in-game goods, you might become tempted to make “just one more transaction” even though you’ve sworn two days earlier that you’re not going to spend any more money on the game this month. But if you’ve got a concrete amount of money on your disposal every month, you might be less intrigued to re-fill it manually after it’s been used up. Of course, users can easily fall into the “money trap” on mobile as well, but I’d still think it’s less likely to happen in a mobile game than a browser game, because on mobile the process of making an actual transaction is not as eminent as it is on the PC. Finally, thanks to fully integrated social gaming networks, players don’t even have to signup to play an MMO on mobile if they already have an account on Game Center or GPGS.
Cross-Promotion & Interstitials – Use Apps to drive Traffic to other Apps
The power of the App Store and Google Play to generate downloads for your app goes hand in hand with another strong advantage of mobile, namely the possibility to do cross-promotion between apps. Unlike web banners, for example, the procedure of directing the users of one app to another app via fullscreen interstitials results in a particularly high conversion rate. Of course, we’re comparing apples to oranges here (at least to a certain extent) because “app to app” is platform-internal while “web to app” goes beyond platform boundaries. And the latter’s always a bit more complicated and less smoothly to pull off. But still: If you keep in mind that we’re spending more and more time on mobile and less and less time in front of a “traditional” computer, it makes good sense to point out how much easier it is to acquire players via interstitials as opposed to web sites, links and banners. To illustrate this, here are a few numbers from the Closed Beta of Galaxy on Fire - Alliances. To fill our servers with life, we’ve invited beta testers through various channels. Among others, we’ve set up a special Closed Beta website, we’ve send out press releases with a link to the registration form and we’ve displayed customized sign-up interstitials in our most popular iOS game, Galaxy on Fire 2 HD. And although the latter is an action-packed sci-fi shooter (i.e. an entirely different genre with a whole different target audience than Galaxy on Fire - Alliances), recruiting beta testers from the active GOF2 HD players via in-game interstitials has by far been the most successful way for us to drive users towards the Closed Beta of our new game. With the aid of Playhaven, we’ve shown a bit more than 1,000;000 interstitials to the players of Galaxy on Fire 2 HD. This resulted in almost 100,000 registrations so far. As opposed to that, we’ve gotten a bit more than 1,500 registrations through the respective website to date – and this includes users that have signed up for the Closed Beta via Safari (i.e. “mobile natives”) as well as players that have done so via their PCs (i.e. “non-mobile” users). So, at least from our experience, driving traffic to our games via mobile is indeed much more effective than driving traffic to ‘em via the web.
Tablets – The ultimate Gaming Devices
And last but not least, there’s the tablet – arguably the most capable gaming device of our time. Combining intuitive touch and gesture-based controls, console-like graphic performance on a fairly large screen with the all-the-time readiness of the smartphone, tablets really embody the best of two worlds. Thus, they’re indeed perfectly suited for running strategy MMOs, because their displays are big enough to depict even the most complex maps or biggest bases, while at the same time they are not stationary but can still be carried around by their users wherever they go. On the one hand, tablet users can perfectly navigate and operate the games they play. But on the other hand, they can also enjoy them on the go. And unlike a notebook (which you can also carry around quite easily), they don’t need ages to boot and a table to be put on in order to be used conveniently. Instead, tablets are really handy and can be accessed and used way easier, quicker and more intuitively than notebooks. Add to this the fact that tablet sales have been rapidly increasing over the past couple of years, and there should be little doubt that tablets are the ultimate devices for mobile games in general – and mobile strategy MMOs in particular!