This mobile F2P genre report is the first of many in Naavik’s Open Gaming Research Initiative. Every alternate month, we will perform a qualitative and quantitative analysis of a certain mobile F2P genre to suss out various current state observations, interesting new subgenre trends, potential future genre predictions, and more. This report was written by Jordan Phang and Abhimanyu Kumar.
In the overall landscape of mobile F2P genres, Strategy Games and Card Battlers have come to be known as heavily reliant on both highly targeted user acquisition and whale-driven IAP monetisation. These two elements are highly intertwined when it comes to defining the genres’ growth over the past decade.
The growth cycle is simple: Targeted UA allows Strategy/Card game developers to acquire potentially high value players for their games → some of these newly acquired players turn into big spenders (or “whales”) that generate high ROI on the incurred targeted UA spend → the game developers reinvest these profits to target and acquire even more potentially high value players.
When this cycle continues across multiple games from multiple developers for multiple years, the industry gets the second biggest mobile F2P genre by revenue. In 2022, Strategy and Card game revenue hit $11 billion (RPG had $18 billion) in IAP revenue, and contributed to ~20% of mobile F2P gaming’s market size.
That said, the past three years haven’t been the most typical for the Strategy/Card genre and mobile F2P more broadly. Everything was hunky-dory until:
- 2020: COVID hit → resulting in the COVID boom for the entirety of gaming
- 2021: IDFA deprecated, global inflation started, and portions of the world opened up post-COVID → resulting in an uncertain UA environment, downward pressure on consumers’ disposable income, and the post-COVID decline across gaming
- 2022: Global inflation fluctuated, the post-IDFA impact continued, and more portions of the world continued to open up → mobile F2P gaming saw its first-ever YoY market dip
In other words, the last three years have been anything but normal, and therefore immediate and sequential comps for a 2023 analysis for mobile F2P genres are less than ideal. Therefore, we’ll need to look at long-term trends most of the time, but also zoom into some short-term data when fitting.
Before we showcase how each of the abovementioned macro factors are playing out today, it is important to recognize how crucial targeted UA has been to fueling mobile F2P’s massive growth over the past decade. The graph below showcases how mobile F2P IAP revenues have grown since January 2015, through the COVID boom period, and up until Apple deprecated the IDFA. Interestingly, this happened around the same time the market started experiencing the post-COVID decline, and global inflation rates started to grow (and eventually drop).
Some macro factors (like increasing mobile phone penetration, growth of global electronic payment infrastructure etc.) aside, if a reliable means to growing mobile F2P games profitably (aka targeted UA) did not exist pre-IDFA deprecation, we wouldn’t have seen “the UA Wonder Years.” Targeted UA gave investors the confidence to fund mobile F2P companies, game developers a predictable and optimizable growth strategy for their games that wasn’t purely organic, and players a plethora of mobile F2P titles to play and more importantly, spend on. Of course, that led to more investors funding more mobile F2P companies, more mobile F2P game developers entering the market, more games launching, and more players playing and generating more revenue. The Wonder Years kicked into overdrive during COVID, but during Apple’s 2020 WWDC, Apple made an announcement that would eventually change the landscape of mobile F2P in 2021.
Besides the COVID boom, Apple’s deprecation of the IDFA has been one of the most impactful events for mobile F2P, since it directly impacted targeted UA capabilities and therefore the quality and scale of IAP revenue generated across mobile F2P genres. It is also important to note that deprecating IDFA affects targeted UA on both iOS and Android, since the lack of iOS data affects the accuracy of targeted UA models of the biggest user acquisition platforms (like Facebook), and therefore has a negative knock on effect when trying to efficiently acquire Android users from the same platforms. Unlike other more gradual factors like the post-COVID decline and global inflation fluctuations, IDFA deprecation was a permanent and immediate change with a clear activation point. This is likely why the mobile F2P IAP revenue graph above starts its decline immediately after Apple deprecated the IDFA in April 2021 – even though the more gradual trends have also played a role on mobile F2P’s declining revenues.
While isolating and quantifying the post-IDFA impact is out of the scope of this analysis, we can try to make some logical deductions. The two graphs below showcase the daily COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally and weekly number of COVID-related deaths. From them, it is relatively clear that a majority of 2021 was spent on administering COVID vaccines en masse, and the positive effects of that started to play out over 2022. And while the vaccination efforts still continue, we’re all well aware that the world has massively relaxed its COVID restrictions and some would say that we’re mostly back to “normal” ways of living since the start of 2023. Therefore, it would be safe to say that we’re broadly back to the times of mobile games having to compete with other forms of physical and digital entertainment for consumers’ disposable income – and that can understandably have a negative effect on mobile F2P consumer spending versus the COVID boom time period, where consumers flocked to games for their entertainment needs during lockdown.
In terms of global inflation rates, it seems to be returning back to pre-COVID levels across countries, but needs a bit more time to get back to “normal” ranges. While these rates do differ from country to country, we’ve showcased what inflation rates look like for the U.S. and the Eurozone below to help make the point. We can’t be absolutely sure how much inflation rates directly impact mobile F2P IAP revenue trends, but it would be safe to assume that it is probably non-zero because inflation directly impacts consumers’ disposable income and that directly impacts consumer spending on mobile F2P games.
Without getting too sidetracked by macro trends, the key takeaway is that a mix of all the above has resulted in a generally unstable and hard to navigate UA environment for mobile F2P developers post-IDFA. This is clearly seen in how some of the top publicly traded mobile F2P gaming companies have been pulling back on UA spend for some time now, and how one of the hottest conversations across mobile F2P game development circles is how best to wade through post-IDFA waters.
With that broader market context set and the lack of good immediate comps justified, let’s bring this analysis back to the Strategy/Card genre. It is a very diverse genre and our taxonomy for the same includes:
- 4X (Rise of Kingdoms, Lords Mobile, Evony)
- Build & Battle (Clash of Clans, Castle Clash, Forge of Empires)
- MOBAs (Honor of Kings, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang)
- CCGs (Marvel Snap, Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel)
- Auto Chess (Teamfight Tactics, Random Dice: GO, Clash Mini)
- Tactical Battlers (Clash Royale, Island War, The Battle Cats)
- Tower Defense (Rush Royale, Slime Legion, Bloons TD 6)
- Other Strategy (this includes smaller subgenres like Asymmetric Battles which are essentially Among Us-likes)
At the highest level, the genre’s revenue trend seems to be no different than that of the broader mobile F2P market.
And since that post-IDFA declining revenue trend is occurring on generally stable (if not slightly higher) post-IDFA download trends, one could begin to conclude that any kind of UA spending is generally turning out to be relatively inefficient. In other words, while the genre is able to attract the same number of users month over month, the revenue efficiency (scale + quality) of these users is suboptimal post-IDFA.
It is also worth splitting downloads out by platform to see what’s driving the genre’s overall download stability. Interestingly enough, iOS downloads have actually seen a baseline lift post-IDFA while Android’s downloads showcase stability. Do note that we’ve removed the Other Strategy subgenre from the graphs below to eliminate data trend skews caused by Among Us’ mammoth download numbers.
The data above does bring up the question of why downloads are stable if a targeted UA driven genre does not have the same UA targeting capabilities post-IDFA? We believe this is purely because mobile F2P game developers are more in the mindset of spending on UA (albeit at relatively lower budgets, while opting for lower CPM acquisition strategies) to figure out what works in the post-IDFA world versus not trying at all. This has resulted in 4X’s download trends actually rising post-IDFA (as seen in the graph below, and among a few others). That has helped with masking any download trend declines in other subgenres and therefore showcasing downloads stability at the genre level. We will discuss how 4X is able to achieve this later in the piece.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the UA spending is revenue efficient, the drivers of which we have discussed previously and as can be seen below in the declining revenue trends on both iOS and Android post-IDFA. Please note that we’ve removed MOBA revenues from the iOS revenue graph below because it’s mostly Honor of Kings’ revenue overperformance in China (discussed more below) that reverses the overall genre’s revenue trend post-IDFA. We have left MOBAs in the Android chart because data.ai does not track China Android revenues and therefore including MOBAs in the Android revenue graph still shows us a true picture.
That said and as previously mentioned, Strategy/Card is a very diverse genre and we need to peel a few more layers and dive deeper into specific subgenre movements, as that is where one can see some interesting trends in the post-IDFA world.
In terms of subgenre download trends, it has mostly been 4X, Tower Defense and the Other Strategy subgenres that have seen a rising download trend more recently. The big September 2020 spike in Other Strategy was mostly driven by Among Us’ rise in popularity during that time and is slowly settling down. Tower Defense’s rise was driven by Rush Royale’s major UA investments, and this continues to be the case given the game’s general success even during these times of UA uncertainty (we’ve made a note to deconstruct Rush Royale’s success formula soon!). On the other hand, 4X’s gradual rise in downloads was not driven by any one game, but by a set of 3 micro-trends that we will discuss in more detail later.
All other Strategy/Card subgenre download trends were generally flat to declining over the long-term:
- Build & Battle’s gradually declining trend is mostly driven by Clash of Clans’ slow organic decline, as this game continues to take up >50% of the subgenre’s downloads market share.
- Tactical Battlers’ gradually declining trend is mostly driven by Clash Royale’s slow organic decline, as the game takes up >35% of the subgenre’s downloads market share.
- MOBA’s stable-to-declining download trends are mostly a function of Brawl Stars’ gradual organic decline, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang slowly losing UA steam, and Honor of Kings seeing an increased downloads baseline in China since January 2022 due to various new live-ops content (new heroes) and feature releases during the Chinese New Year period.
- CCGs have remained mostly stable in terms of downloads with the May 2020 downloads spike occurring due to Legends of Runeterra’s launch and a similar spike occurring in October 2022 due to Marvel Snap’s launch.
- Auto-chess continues to remain the smallest subgenre of all on a downloads basis and is not seeing anything significant happening in it, apart from Tencent launching Battle of the Spatula.
In terms of subgenre revenue trends, it has mostly been 4X defining the shape of the overall genre’s revenue curve. As can be seen below, there has been a clear impact to the subgenre’s revenue trend post-IDFA and we will discuss it in more detail later. MOBAs, on the other hand, have seen a rising download trend post-IDFA, but this is mostly driven by Honor of King’s massive over-performance in China since the previously mentioned downloads baseline increase occurred in January 2022.
All other subgenre revenue trends have been either stable, declining or generally insignificant in the broader scheme of things:
- Build & Battle’s gradually declining trend is mostly driven by Clash of Clans’ slow decline, as this game continues to take up >80% of the subgenre’s revenue market share.
- Tactical Battlers’ are seeing a similar reasoning due to Clash Royale’s slow decline, as the game continues to take up >50% of the subgenre’s revenue market share. Interestingly, The Battle Cats is a game that has been slowly gaining on Clash Royale since 2020, but it is an Eastern themed title that tends to behave similarly to how Cookie Run does in Endless Runners. In other words, while deeply analyzing the source of The Battle Cats success could be a valuable endeavor, this game’s performance should not speak for overall subgenre trends.
- CCGs have remained mostly stable in terms of revenue with Hearthstone, the two Yu-Gi-Oh games, Shadowverse, and WWE Supercard all generally performing at a similar scale and carrying the subgenre forward. Marvel Snap is of course the big outlier with a stupendous launch, although its F2P monetisation tactics will be discussed in more detail later.
- Surprisingly, Auto-chess has seen a rising revenue trend even though downloads have remained relatively flat. But the new revenue baseline is mostly driven by Tencent's launch of Battle of Golden Spatula, which is basically Team Fight Tactic’s China-only version. We’ll discuss Auto-chess more broadly later.
- Tower Defense has also been seeing a rising revenue trend. But as discussed in the downloads section above, this mostly follows Rush Royale’s increasing UA investments. Whether the product and live-ops alone will sustain the game’s revenue volumes is yet to be seen.
With that, let’s dive into 5 key topics worth unpacking in the Strategy/Card genre that should result in some interesting analyses, future takes, and game making advice.
#1: 4X is Broadening its Top of the Funnel
As seen above, 4X is one of the few Strategy/Card subgenres to see a respectable +13.5% YoY increase in downloads over July 2022 - June 2023. Unfortunately, the subgenre’s revenue has not followed a similar upward trend, shrinking by -8.7% YoY over the same time period.
Further, it seems like many of the subgenre’s publisher incumbents (FunPlus, Lilith, IGG and Netease) haven’t been able to sustain very well through the post-IDFA period, with revenues generally dropping across the 4X parts of their game portfolios.
For a genre that has highly templatised and deep monetisation methods, downloads being up and revenues being down is usually a sign of a wider and lower quality top of the funnel. In other words, it seems like many 4X game publishers are having trouble acquiring high-value players due to the lack of targeted UA capabilities, and are therefore casting a wider acquisition net (or broadening the top of the funnel) in hopes of finding those high-value players while also acquiring many more low-value ones.
In the early 2010’s, when 4X as a subgenre emerged on the mobile F2P scene with games like Machine Zone’s Game of War, it was a well-known fact that these kinds of games suffer from very poor early retention while having highly competitive medium-to-long term retention. That mixed with very deep monetisation systems and absurdly high spend ceilings resulted in high long-term LTV and thereby allowed these games to acquire high-value players at high CPIs. But this was the case when targeted UA on high-value player platforms was possible, where 4X game publishers would pay top dollar for acquiring exactly the kind of player they need to scale profitably. Now that that’s less so the case, 4X game publishers need to think outside the box to scale profitably and they currently seem to be leaning towards “broadening the top of the funnel” as a key strategy.
We see the impact of this with other 4X publishers (some new, some old) like Long Tech Network (Last Shelter, Last Fortress, Rise of Empire), Camel Games (Age of Origin, War and Order), Top Games (Evony), 37 Entertainment (Puzzles & Survival), Topwar Studio (Top War), Century Games (Whiteout Survival), and Star Union (The Ants: Underground Kingdom), who have all found ways to scale revenues on new and existing 4X products that go simply beyond having a great product, but also a great UA strategy that navigates them through these uncertain times.
We believe this is the case because three key trends in the 4X subgenre all point towards 4X game publishers attempting to broaden the top of the funnel – 1) genre-mashing, 2) rethinking UA creative strategy, and 3) releasing new games with different themes. Let’s take a look at each of them.
4X is genre-mashing to expand its UA pool
If you haven’t been keeping an eye on 4X, you might be surprised by the large amount of gameplay variety in today’s 4X games versus those of the Machine Zone days or even those from 3-5 years back. While the core 4X experience (Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate) is still intact in the newer titles, many developers have begun integrating elements from other genres to help with two things:
- Advertise new types of gameplay content that helps acquire new players from a wider UA pool versus the more narrowly focussed 4X player pool only.
- Once the wider pool of players are in the game, the new gameplay variety (which is usually not as intense as the typical 4X experience) allows 4X game publishers to retain as many of those new players as possible in hopes of converting them into players that go on to engage with and monetise on the real 4X-meta.
While calling the above strategy a classic “bait-and-switch” might be a bit crass, here are some examples of how some of today’s successful 4X games are executing on the above and “genre-mashing”:
- Top War’s Merge mechanics
- Puzzles & Survival’s Match-3 gameplay
- Age of Apes’ Hypercasual minigame
- Stormshot’s Physics Puzzles
- Doomsday’s Tactical combat
- Age of Frostfall’s take on Bad North’s combat
- Whiteout Survival’s Squad RPG mode
- Last Fortress: Underground’s Excavate mode puzzles
- Ant Legion’s Tower Defense minigame
When trying to suss out what kind of gameplay 4X game developers are choosing to mash into their games, there is no clear trend in terms of gameplay genre/subgenre. But one thing almost all genre-mashed 4X games have in common is that the genre-mashed gameplay element has the potential to speak to a very large audience and that is mostly driven by its Hypercasual-like simplicity and addictiveness. Given the more recent downloads growth 4X has seen by implementing this strategy, it is clearly working from a broadening the top of the acquisition funnel perspective.
To showcase that this has grown to become a key trend in 4X, we took a look at the new 4X releases over the past 3 years, tagged them as “Genre-mashed” if they included gameplay from other genres such as Squad RPGs, Hypercasual, Tower Defense, Puzzle etc., filtered out games that had less than 100K in lifetime downloads and $10M in lifetime revenue, and performed a year over year count. While this isn’t a perfect measure, it will give us a sense of how common hybridizing is becoming among 4X games that are relatively successful.
As the data shows above, there has clearly been a steady increase in the proportion of genre-mashed 4X games since 2020. It’s also likely not going anywhere in 2023-24 given the proven success in being able to garner more downloads during turbulent UA times. Although what 4X game developers now need to figure out is how they convert all these new downloads into actual revenue, so that the UA spend is made much more efficient.
Peeling a layer further, genre-mashing in 4X exists in a few flavors. For one, it is occurring not only in 4X’s core loop, but also in its live-ops activities. For example, special time-limited events which include completely different game modes such as Tile Crush (a Zen Match-like) in Last Fortress or Gala Parade (a dice board game) in Age of Origins. The reason for this is likely that genre-mashed 4X games need a regular inflow of new marketing firepower to ensure their potential UA pool is kept maximized for the longest-period of time, and introducing genre-mashed gameplay elements in live-ops activities allows for that.
All that said, genre-mashing 4X gameplay isn’t a silver bullet by any means in today’s UA climate. Some of these genre-mashed 4X games have better assimilated the genre-mashing efforts than others. In other words, not all genre-mashing efforts yield the same results and some amount of trial and error should be expected when trying to find the right formula for your genre-mashed 4X.
For example, Age of Apes didn't include any minigames when it first launched in 2019 (as you can see in this gameplay video). Publisher Tap4Fun then introduced a rather convoluted minigame based on Hypercasual strategy titles like Tower War by SayGames.
Interestingly, this minigame didn’t feature in many of its UA creatives, and the company pivoted to the current minigame, which is based on agar.io (TLDWatch: eat bananas to grow larger and consume other apes) and does feature in many of its UA creatives. These minigames are also themed as “clearing a mutant lair” (which are spread throughout the map and probably works well for UA funnel conversion metrics), and the minigames also provide resources for the 4X gameplay to keep them well connected to the backbone meta systems.
The willingness of Tap4Fun to make big changes to the game at least three different times shows that a willingness to be agile and adapt will be an important quality for developers in this tough market. This attribute has served Tap4Fun well, as it seems to finally have found a winning formula that’s allowing it to scale as seen below. We will of course need to wait and see whether the rapid growth sustains.
4X is taking a page from Hypercasual UA
If you’ve recently watched ads for 4X games, chances are that they look nothing like the end product. Publishers are making use of anything in their arsenal and channeling them into UA creatives – from creating Hypercasual-like creatives based on the genre-mashed gameplay elements to the now ubiquitous fake ads.
While we still find the fake ad strategy to be a less sustainable one long-term (even though it works as a quick fix), 4X games creating Hypercasual-like ads by leaning on their hypercasual-like genre-mashed gameplay elements is definitely working to broaden the top of the funnel and bring a wider set of players into the game. One example is Stormshot by FunPlus which has a shooting minigame that features heavily in its UA creatives and in the app stores.
The shooting minigame is included as the first thing you experience in the game, ensuring that players brought in by the ads don’t get the feeling of being baited and switched. The minigames also feature its own Sharpshooter progression track and provide rewards and resources for the 4X gameplay.
Further, top publishers like IGG are also experimenting with creatives that go beyond simple variations. Below, you can see 4 ads for Doomsday and Lords Mobile, each featuring either a different art style, theme, camera-angle, gameplay element etc. The underperforming ones, in terms of maximizing installs at the lowest CPIs, are likely deprecated quickly and new variations are introduced into the testing mix.
The sheer level of experimentation we’re seeing with UA creatives in 4X is highly reminiscent of the golden years of Hypercasual, when publishers were pumping out hundreds of prototypes a month and dumping them as soon as they failed to reach certain KPIs. It’s really this spirit of agility and data-driven decision making that game developer teams need to stay competitive in today’s acquisition game. That said, game developers will also need to keep evolving their UA strategies as more clarity is gained around how best to operate in the post-IDFA world – and most importantly, in a revenue efficient way.
4X’s thematic variety has exploded!
When we examine the 4X games that have gained the most downloads over the past 12 months, it’s mostly led by new titles. The table below shows the top 10 games that have grown the most in downloads YoY, 80% of which were released in the past 24 months, hence the N/A in the YoY % Change column.
The more interesting observation here is that established 4X publishers like IGG, FunPlus and Lilith, are not only releasing new games, but these new releases are highly differentiated to their older titles (and versus the market) in terms of theme. Since 4X is a very male-dominated subgenre, the themes of the subgenre’s most successful games used to correlate to that audience skew. But in an effort to broaden the top of the funnel in the post-IDFA context, it seems like all kinds of stops are being pulled by game developers on thematic variety experimentation so as to broaden the top of the funnel as much as possible while finding the right balance with the most monetizable audience. For example, Doomsday by IGG has a gritty and realistic zombie survival theme (a broadly resonating theme) and is very different from Lords Mobile’s colorful medieval aesthetic.
37 Entertainment’s new game Ant Legion looks like a take on The Ants: Underground Kingdom, and is a far cry from Puzzles & Survival.
As an interesting aside – there also seems to be a new flavor of theme in town. We’ve already seen the wave of zombie-themed 4X’s with Puzzles & Survival, Age of Origins, and Last Fortress, but the new flavor seems to be animal-related. The Ants: Underground Kingdom was the trailblazer, but this has now been followed by Ant Legion, Beast Lord, and Wolf Game. Expect to see more animal warfare in the near future!
But how are these new games performing in terms of revenue? To see what’s going on, let’s look at a chart of the top 10 games that gained the most revenue or lost the most revenue year over year- a “winners” vs “losers” table if you will. Bolded games are ones which have been released within the past 24 months.
What the table above shows is that the winners have generally all been new titles, while the losers are mainly incumbents that have dropped downloads. While new titles are still being released, it’s really the new thematic variations that are helping with scaling UA (apart from the other two trends we’ve previously hit on). We do still need to keep in mind that revenue is not ROI, and it’ll take a bit more time to see if these games have longevity or whether they burn bright and fade to obscurity.
Certain publishers are bullish on these new titles though. IGG’s profit warning letter to its investors shows that the company is confident in its two new games (Doomsday and Viking Rise) to offset the revenue drop from its aging catalog. In the letter, Board Chairman Zongjian Cai said:
“These two new games and the APP Business have become new driving forces of the Group’s continuous growth, accounting for more than 30% of the Group’s recent revenue, and driving the Group’s recent monthly gross billing to over HK$500 million (USD$64M). Overall revenue of the Group was up by more than 15% in 1H2023 compared to the second half of 2022, reaching approximately HK$2.45 billion. The two new games and APP Business have offset the natural decline in the gross billing of the Group’s older games, re-optimized the Group’s revenue structure and diversified the Group’s product portfolio, and will drive the steady development of the Group’s business in the medium and long term.”
So what can we take away from all of this? First, the post-ATT world is pretty grim, but that isn't the end of everything. Publishers, and specifically 4X ones, are trying their best to find growth strategies that will give them profit advantages. While games are still being launched and still able to scale (watch this Roundtable for a discussion on UA in this market), it does require a new mindset – one that embraces agility and experimentation to figure out what works. For example, this article from Singular on SKAN 4.0 strategy and this GameMakers’ session is quite insightful.
Are these new strategies resulting in long-term sustainable games? Do their creative UA strategies result in incoming players who’ll stick around and spend in D180 and more? It’s still a bit early to say if these new entrants are actually “winning”, but seeing a game like Last Fortress: Underground steadily increase its revenue over the last 3 years (see the graph above) proves that it can be done.
Although, there is one company that really brings all these three micro-trends together in a beautiful way – 37 Entertainment with their game Puzzles & Survival. In December 2019, 37 Entertainment launched an innovative hybrid take on the 4X genre titled Puzzles & Conquest — a mix of match-3 RPG along the likes of Empires & Puzzles and a march-battle 4X game, set in a fantasy universe with mythological heroes. At Google’s Think Games event the team shared that the game was profitable but didn’t manage to scale due to rising UA costs. Other post-apocalyptic zombie games on the market, namely FunPlus’ 4X game State of Survival: Zombie War, which launched globally April 2019, helped 37 Entertainment verify the potential of the theme and its compatibility for strategic gameplay set in a zombies-infested world.
Thus was born Puzzles & Survival — a follow-up to Puzzles & Conquest and a genre-mashed 4X Match 3 game set in the wake of a zombie apocalypse that launched in August 2020. And no doubt, they’ve leaned in heavily into ad creatives experimentation that range from Hypercasual-like ads to higher production value ones.
37 Entertainment continued to launch several other 4X-only games during the same period, like Wild Frontier (launched December 2019) set in the American Wild West and Ant Legion (launched August 2020) set in the miniaturized world of ants, though none of the games have come close to the performance of Puzzles & Survival. Their approach to genre-mashed 4X game design, hypercasual-like UA tactics, and broad top of the funnel theme testing/switching has massively paid off, as it is not every day we hear of games that beat out mobile F2P incumbents like Clash Royale and AFK Arena.
When it comes to surviving in the post-IDFA world, sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the new reality (with more to come when Google deprecates GAID) or waiting for the dust to settle so you can copy what others are doing just means you’ll be left behind and/or it’ll be hard to catch up. As they say, fortune favors the bold!
#2: MOBA = Maybe Opt for Better Avenues
It’s no secret that one game holds a stranglehold on MOBAs – Honor of Kings (HoK). However, besides that fact, MOBAs see a high concentration of revenue into just six games which make up 97% of revenue. Besides Honor of Kings, these games are League of Legends: Wild Rift, Arena of Valor, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, One Piece Bounty Rush, and Brawl Stars. The table below shows the top 10 MOBAs byt revenue between January 2022 and June 2023, and we can see that there is a huge gulf in success beyond those games. And as HoK shows, even within the top 6 there are levels to this lopsided market, with HoK having 5x the revenue of the rest.
Not only is revenue concentrated on a few games, it is also very concentrated in a few regions. The table below shows the top 10 regions for revenue between January 2022 and June 2023, and US and Germany are the only two western representatives, with only 3.50% and 0.88% of revenue share respectively.
Further, there are only 1-2 successful MOBAs per region with the rest just picking up the dregs:
- China: Dominated by HoK
- Japan: Dominated by One Piece Bounty Rush
- Taiwan: Dominated by Arena of Valor (aka HoK)
- US: Generally split between Brawl Stars, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and LoL: Wild Rift
- Malaysia: Dominated by Mobile Legends: Bang Bang
Based on all the above data, there are two key takeaways:
- The five games that make up for >95% of the MOBA market are long-time incumbents, which means the MOBA market is heavily locked up. And this doesn’t seem like it is going to change in the near future, unless a new kind of (read as highly differentiated) MOBA offering hits the market that gives existing player bases a good enough reason to switch. To put data to this claim – since 2021, 57 new MOBAs have been released and only one has been a “mild” success, and that is none other than Pokemon Unite (thank you Pokemon IP).
- Since MOBAs are games of immense mastery and high social play, switching costs between titles tend to become very high. In other words, players generally pick their MOBA poison and then stick with it for long periods of time. That of course makes it very hard for a new title to break into the market, which goes back to the point about thinking hard about differentiation before attempting to enter this market.
All this to say that launching a new MOBA today is almost a sure shot way to fail. Even mega publisher Tencent hasn’t really been able to crack open this lock. Not satisfied with Honor of Kings’ domestic success, the publisher announced in June 2022 that it plans to take this behemoth global, which is its second try after the “failed” Arena of Valor (well, failure only relative to HoK). The global version of HoK has been live in Brazil since March 2023, but isn’t even outperforming its elder sibling in terms of RPD.
So if you’re making a MOBA, perhaps think twice. This is likely not a very surprising conclusion, but with 57 new MOBAs being released since 2021 feels like we should regularly be reminded that there are plenty of “good” options out there and unless you can heavily differentiate your offering (in terms of gameplay, accessibility, IP, distribution etc.), players are likely going to ignore it. The ocean is very very red here, and we shouldn’t forget Catalyst Black – ~2.5M in downloads and ~$350K in IAP revenue over almost 3 years of operations. Ouch.
#3: Has Supercell Abandoned its Core Ethos?
Supercell is undoubtedly a specialist in Strategy. Four out of its five hits have been Strategy titles: Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, Clash Royale, and Brawl Stars. Also, most of the post-Brawl Stars games that have soft launched – Rush Wars, Clash Quest, Clash Mini, Squad Busters, Flood Rush – have been Strategy titles with the exception of Everdale. Having defined and redefined Strategy subgenres, we would be remiss to not dedicate a section to Supercell and see what we can learn from their most recent efforts.
It’s no secret that the company has been facing declining revenues between 2018 - 2020. While 2021 saw a bump in revenues, it was a short-lived one as 2022 was another down year – although it was Supercell’s best revenue year since 2018. The table below is pieced together from the annual Illka’s Long Texts.
But with growth performance pressure, Supercell is also facing a different kind of drought the past few years. By Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen’s own admittance, the failure to release the next hit after Brawl Stars is weighing heavy on the company. The company has killed 30+ games with 5 bonafide hits. That results in a hit rate of 16.7%, which is still stupendously good considering the company’s definition of a hit is a billion dollar mass-market unicorn. But the lack of a new hit is still concerning as revenue has been on a steady downward trend from the heady peaks of 2014-2016, and getting back to a growth path (regardless of the revenue scale) is something that a company like Supercell inherently strives for.
To Supercell’s credit, they’re working on many things simultaneously to enable a way back to growth, such as increasing team sizes so as to sustainably run live ops on large titles, exploring a multi-platform focus, opening new studios in new locations in search of fresh talent, better understanding the world of performance marketing and how to plug it into the Supercell way, investing in multiple studios to reap return benefits etc. However, we’d like to focus this analysis on one key underlying issue that is something everyone in mobile F2P has been feeling for some while now. It may not be a groundbreaking observation, but it is one that we believe is core to Supercell’s current state. We get a glimpse of it in Ilkka’s letter from February 2023.
In it, he speaks about the challenges of being continuously successful, saying, “From a purely mental perspective, it seems easier to take risks and develop games ‘when you have nothing to lose’. When our teams were developing Hay Day and Clash of Clans back in 2012, we obviously had no idea how big they could become. We just created the best games we could and put them out. These days, there is a lot more pressure. Of course player expectations are higher, but I think most of the pressure comes from within.”It’s not hard to imagine that the burden of success means that every Supercell team is chasing KPIs and metrics versus taking a risk to “find the fun”. Most would remember the magic of picking up Clash Royale or Brawl Stars for the first time, and then going – “This is fun! I can’t stop playing.” However, many of Supercell’s new releases have lacked that spark. When playing them, our thoughts are more like – “Ah, so players will need to upgrade the entire roster to stay competitive. Smart.” In other words, Supercell seems to have lost its new game making spark, which was something uniquely Supercell.
The Key Ingredient to Every Supercell Hit
In many ways, Supercell is like Apple. Just like the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone with a touchscreen or an app store, Supercell isn’t the first to market with new game designs or mechanics. For example, Clash of Clans was heavily inspired by Kixeye’s Backyard Monsters, Hay Day by Farmville, and Brawl Stars by League of Legends and Overwatch.
But just like Apple, Supercell takes these base inspirations and ensures they are best to market by making amazing new products that can capture the masses and become cultural phenomena. What is their formula? In a phrase, it would probably be “innovation via simplification”. Supercell takes a base inspiration for a game and simplifies it to its essence, a strategy that Steve Jobs used at Apple. The quote below from Jobs encapsulates this philosophy.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
This is very similar to Supercell's ethos, which has been put on record many times. For example in an interview with Redbull, Brawl Stars’ Game Lead Frank Keienburg said, “Our focus was on retaining a lot of depth while stripping away all the fluff.”As an example of how they do this, below is an examination of Clash Royale and Brawl Stars. We’ve categorized some of the elements for the base inspirations as “essence” (vital) or “periphery” (fluff). What Supercell does is to keep the essence and discard the periphery to create something new that’s more than the sum of its parts.
It's been a successful formula for Supercell for many years, but for some reason, for the past 4.5 years, the formula has failed. If anyone can accurately pinpoint its problems which even CEO Ilkka Paananen feels stumped by, they would have been on the phone with him by now (feel free to contact us Ilkka!). However, we’d like to make a case for how they’ve strayed from their formula. While they are still focused on simplification, it feels like the pressure to succeed has (probably unintentionally) affected the team’s core ethos, and “finding the essence of fun” has taken a back seat to “will this game make a billion dollars.” Let’s examine this by looking at some of their recent betas and soft launches.
How Supercell Soft-launches Lost the Fun
This was a mashup of Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, with the aim to casualize build and battle. However, as Youtuber HaVoC Gaming says, “It kind of felt dated, out of the gate.”Below, you can see a screenshot of the game. On the left is where you place your troops. The bridges are choke points and will funnel troops just like in Clash Royale. On the right is the opponent’s customized base which your troops will attack, just like Clash of Clans. The problem with Rush Wars was that the mashup didn’t result in something that felt new, and it missed some of the most important essences from its base inspirations. For example, the tactical countering in Clash Royale and the tactics of base layout in Clash of Clans (due to the base layout being pre-determined in Rush Wars).
On paper, this mashup probably sounded like a solid business-case: take the company’s two biggest games, combine them, and casualize it to reach an even bigger audience. How could you not win? However, in execution, Supercell lost the essence of what made those games fun in the first place, and players found the game repetitive and not fun. When the game was shut down, the team said: “We heard your feedback with the game feeling repetitive, and we made some changes with a few updates. However, the changes we made didn’t help the game long term nor change up the gameplay style enough to make it as fun as we would like.”
This is a Puzzle RPG, but we’ve included it to build our case. Clash Quest was an attempt to casualize Puzzle RPGs, like Empires & Puzzles, by changing the match mechanic to blast, greatly reducing the size of the board, and various metagame simplifications. However in its manifestation, we believe Clash Quest lost one key essence of fun in Match-3 Puzzle RPG gameplay, which is “chain reactions” since Blast games don’t really have that concept. There is likely more nuance to Clash Quest’s demise, but we’d like to focus on the lack of chain reactions, as it directly speaks to our “essence of fun” thesis.
Beating the game’s enemies in Match-3 Puzzle RPGs eventually comes down to the player’s character stats (upgradable through the game’s meta progression systems), and a healthy serving of luck via unintentional chain reactions in the Match-3 action gameplay. These chains close the player-to-enemy power gap by making up for a limited number of moves and capped character stats. Also, a long chain reaction of matches is simply one of the most satisfying feelings in gaming. Chain reactions in Puzzle RPGs are akin to combo attacks in a fighting game – imagine playing Street Fighter but you’re not able to perform amazing combos like this.
It might very well be the case that Supercell knowingly took this decision to enable more strategically deep gameplay that was focussed more on actively solving puzzles versus leaving winning to luck. But we’d argue that Match-3 Puzzle RPGs are still quite strategic games with a chain reaction enabled Match-3 action phase. If they weren’t, we’d likely not see Puzzle RPG hits like Monster Strike, Puzzles & Dragons, Empires & Puzzles, WWE: Champions, and Legendary: Game of Heroes. When Clash Quest was shut down, the team said: “We've made the difficult decision to end development of Clash Quest. At Supercell, it's well known that we set very high standards for our games. Because of this, even after the recent design changes we implemented just before the summer break, we felt Clash Quest still didn't reach the bar we were aiming for.”
Squad Busters and Flood Rush
Squad Busters is essentially Brawl Stars meets Agar.io. You defeat enemies to collect resources during a match to unlock chests from which you can add a character into your squad, thus growing stronger, then rinse and repeat. Conceptually, this sounds like a fun core loop. Where Squad Busters misses the mark is in capturing the essence of both games in one key way – there’s a lack of skill-based play, likely due to an attempt to increase audience accessibility and reduce one barrier of entry.
In Brawl Stars, aiming and timing is a hugely important skill. Using your hand-eye coordination and a deep understanding of the Brawler’s strengths and weaknesses leads to success. In Agar.io, you’re an amorphous blob that grows larger by eating smaller blobs which then make you even larger. But a key feature there is the ability to split or merge your blob, and that is important because larger blobs might be stronger, but they’re also slower. So whether you’re attacking or escaping, there’s an interesting risk vs reward decision at play.
Thinking back on all the successful Strategy titles Supercell has released, there is great satisfaction in performing an act of skill during gameplay. Getting a good shot that kills an opponent in Brawl Stars, timely placing a counter troop that wipes out the opponent units Clash Royale, or delivering the right combination of troops to destroy a bases’ defense in Clash of Clans are all extremely satisfying moments of skill.
In Squad Busters, your squad attacks autonomously and you merely guide them within range of an enemy to attack. There really isn’t much risk vs reward decision making, and the skill ceiling is quite low too – stronger squads simply win. To be fair, the skill in Squad Busters is choosing the right team make-up, but it isn’t really one that provides player satisfaction in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Players just kind of guide their squad to an enemy squad and engage in a squad-versus-squad moshpit, where the stronger squad wins. You might know that the new hero you picked up is helping you in some way, but you aren’t sure exactly how.
All in all, Squad Busters generally felt like a game that was designed from a “how can we ensure players need to upgrade all their characters” angle (to enable a billion dollar hit), rather than extracting the essence of what makes Brawl Stars and agar.io fun, and then answering the “how can we make sure squad vs squad combat is fun” question (to build a fun game first).
We won’t get too deep into Flood Rush, since it has very similar gameplay to Squad Busters except with a new IP. Therefore, it faces the same lack of risk vs reward decision making and low skill ceiling problems as Squad Busters.
While this was soft launched earlier than Squad Busters and Flood Rush, we’ve saved the best for last. Of all of Supercell’s recently soft-launched games, Clash Mini is one where Supercell has most adhered to “finding the essence”.
Clash Mini is essentially Autochess-lite, and what they’ve ended up with captures what made Autochess fun. The strategic positioning, tough resource decision-making, and character ability synergies are all present, but in a simplified way.
That’s not to say it’s a guaranteed hit, as it still has to solve for mid-and long-term engagement. But of all Supercell’s new games that we’ve played, it’s the only one that left us with more of the “magic” feeling that Brawl Stars, Clash Royale, and Clash of Clans had.
In many instances, the essence of fun was missed when Supercell decided to oversimplify the game in order to reach as big of an audience as possible, which could’ve been driven by internal pressure to be the next billion-dollar game that is also a mass-market hit. As the above failed games indicate, once the essence is missing, it is extremely difficult to add it back. It’s like cooking a bolognese, but missing out on the Soffritto (the base of chopped onions, carrots and celery) – one cannot really add that back once the dish is done. To Supercell’s credit though, they’re not shy of pivoting hard on core game design during soft-launch. But as we’ve said, it’s extremely difficult to add the essence back to an already formulated concept. One is probably better off killing the concept and starting fresh.
While “finding the essence of fun” is core to Supercell’s DNA, they’ve clearly wandered from that path a bit in recent years. But it feels like they’re also striving to change that by setting up new studios in Shanghai and North America. The hope is that these new studios will be free from the shackles of past successes and have the freedom to create something truly new. It’s something Ilkka is hoping for too, and in his annual letter has said to the new teams – “take big risks and be different from our Helsinki Studio. Don’t try to be the 2nd best version of Helsinki. Build something different and additive.”
While it’s still too early to call the expansion a success, we can see that Supercell’s strategy is already bearing some fruit. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Clash Mini, developed by the Shanghai Studio, is currently the frontrunner for the game most likely to see the light of global launch (purely based on the fact that it’s been in soft launch for more than 1.5 years and hasn’t been killed). Whether it be new mobile F2P titles from Supercell Shanghai or multi-platform ones from Supercell North America, the charge from Ilkka to Supercellians to “think different” makes us optimistic that Supercell will be able to get back to a path of more consistently finding that essence of fun, and it’ll only be a matter of time until we see the next magical Supercell mega-hit.
#4: IP Domination and Cosmetics-based Monetisation in CCGs
If you don’t have an IP, should you be building a CCG?
When looking at the revenue performance of CCGs since the start of 2022, the top 10 CCGs make up for >85% of the subgenres revenues and 9 out of 10 are IP-based:
- Both Yu-Gi-Oh games are based on the same IP that started as a manga series in 1996 and went on to spawn multiple spin-off manga and anime series, a trading card game, and numerous video games. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links launched in 2016, while Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel launched in 2022.
- Marvel Snap is of course based on the Marvel IP, and it launched in 2022.
- Hearthstone builds upon the existing lore of the Warcraft series by using the same elements, characters, and relics. It was launched in 2014.
- WWE SuperCard has licensed IP/characters from WWE itself, and it was launched in 2014.
- Magic: The Gathering Arena is a digital adaption of the Magic: The Gathering card game. It is developed and published by Wizards of the Coast, and launched on PC in 2019 and on mobile in 2021.
- Shadowverse is the only CCG in the top-10 list that is a new IP, but it was also launched in 2016 when Hearthstone dominated the market and competition within the subgenre was low.
- Duel Masters Play is based on the Duel Masters media franchise that saw its origins in 1999. This game was launched in 2019.
- Animation Throwdown combines content and characters from the American animated television shows Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad!, Bob's Burgers, King of the Hill, and Archer. It was launched in 2016.
- Legends of Runeterra is set in the League of Legends universe and features multiple characters from there. It was launched in 2020.
We think it would be relatively safe to say that if your CCG doesn’t have a strong IP attached to it, you better think twice about building one in today's mobile F2P market. It does not feel like a coincidence that IP-based games now dominate the CCG market, and given the launch years of most, they’re long-term staying power is also quite strong.
That said, there is one interesting breed of CCGs that has made a new appearance off late, which we’d classify as a highly casualised CCG experience. The game we’re referring to is Black Deck by Say Games, which has garnered ~2.5M downloads and ~$5.6M in IAP revenue since its launch in January 2023. It is currently in its scaling phase, and you can check out the gameplay video below.
Based on the gameplay video above, one can conclude that this is not the CCG experience one would usually expect from this genre. Given that the game is published by SayGames (one of the top hypercasual publishers of the previous years), this probably is more an attempt to diversify outside of hypercasual and look for new hybridcasual experiences that they can scale into a more long-lasting games business.
That said, it does bring up an interesting gap in the CCG market where the lack of highly accessible CCG experiences does create room for new entrant opportunity. While it is an interesting area to keep an eye on, it remains to be seen whether Black Deck-like CCG experiences can truly garner a large enough audience scale, sustain deep enough F2P monetisation systems, and run great live-ops to compete with the current top 10 IP-based CCG market heavyweights. In other words, there is still a lot to be proven out here.
Is Marvel Snap’s cosmetic-based monetisation strategy replicable?
Now, let’s talk about one “more traditional” CCG game that was able to launch just last year and absolutely crush the CCG charts – Marvel Snap (read our deconstruction here). It arrived with a bang in October 2022 and is sitting pretty on top of the CCG revenue charts for the first half of 2023. This is all despite a monetization strategy centered entirely around cosmetics, which is a first for the subgenre on mobile. Interestingly, we were able to find one more cosmetics-based CCG called Chroma, but it is for PC only and has received “Mostly Positive” reviews from various Hearthstone, Legends of Runeterra, Shadowverse etc. players who appreciated the cosmetics-only monetisation systems apart from other aspects of the game.
Based on our monetization analysis of Marvel Snap’s cosmetic-based economy/monetisation, we concluded that while Marvel Snap’s monetisation started strong, concerns about its longevity are warranted. Since then, we’ve seen the game’s revenue steadily decline over dropping downloads.
In terms of live-ops performance, the revenue trend doesn’t look the healthiest, as live-ops peaks have regularly been declining on quite stabilised daily downloads trend. Maybe these peaks also stabilise at certain levels going forward, but the dropping peaks do communicate some amount of live-ops issues too and that’s probably another core driver for the steadily dropping monthly revenue volumes for Marvel Snap.
We say that because the game’s D180 RPD continues to tower over that of its competitors, which is usually a good thing for overall revenue volumes. But our hypothesis is that Marvel Snap’s high RPD less says that the game’s foundational and cosmetics-based monetisation systems and live-ops are great versus the competition, and more says that the audience’s affinity to the Marvel IP is strongly inflating the RPD numbers. In other words, Marvel Snap’s player base enjoys spending on the Marvel IP virtual items, cosmetics or not. This would also fit with players’ top complaints about the game not having enough ways to spend and acquire new cards, which is keeping them very hungry and therefore driving the RPD up. But if nothing changes with the game’s fundamental monetisation systems and/or live-ops strategy, that RPD curve will likely flatten out over time versus continuously scale – and that’s not a great place to be long-term.
In Second Dinner’s March 2023 development roadmap, we do see that they have plans to improve on these issues in the form of card acquisition improvements via a Token Shop Revamp, Spotlight Caches (a new gacha box that bypasses the Token Shop), and a new competitive mode.
They’ve since launched a new August 2023 development roadmap too, and one can see how various items are progressing through the Kanban.
We covered some of these additions in our digest piece, and concluded that it's still too early to tell (given Conquest was released in June, and Spotlight Caches in July) whether they will make a material difference to Marvel Snaps’ current hurdles. However, plotting these various feature releases on Marvel Snap’s revenue curve shows that these features haven’t really reversed the revenue decline all that greatly.
On the bright side, these changes have resulted in a significant increase in D60 retention, and it may well be that the features are meant to set up the stage for even bigger additions in the future like Guilds and social systems which could jump start revenue again. However, those plans remain in the concept phase with no definitive timeline, and Second Dinner will probably need to expedite the process so players aren’t leaving before these big feature launches.
What’s clear is that a cosmetics-only monetization strategy comes with its own set of challenges and is not a panacea to perceived “unfair” monetization strategies. Developers aiming to emulate it would do well to carefully assess the weaknesses and to design around them, which is probably a Naavik deep dive in itself some time soon. Further and like we’ve mentioned previously, the elephant in the room that needs to be considered is that when you look at the mobile CCG market, IP-based games dominate. In fact, in Ben Brode’s GDC 2023 talk, he admits that it was the acquisition of the Marvel IP that caused the genesis of Marvel Snap as a CCG, as the team were working on another game at the time.
So is the Marvel Snap formula replicable? Does it light the way forward for a less aggressive monetization model? Unfortunately, for the majority of developers, the answer will likely be no. Not only is Marvel Snap’s monetization showing signs of long-term weakness, unless you have an extremely popular IP that players are willing to spend upgrading just for visual upgrades, you’re probably dead in the water.
However, and just to throw out one potentially new idea, there may be a way to circumvent this need for recognizable IP by going down the ACG route – and more specifically, the waifu/husbando game route. Having attractive anime characters as the cards which you upgrade to get more elaborate costumes and poses would be the equivalent of Marvel Snap’s rarity-based visual upgrades. It won’t be as mass-market as Marvel Snap, but as miHoYo has proved, there is an appetite for western gamers to acquire and upgrade a team of waifus and husbandos.
#5: Auto-Chess Continues its Search for a Mass-Market Hit
In 2019, Chinese developer Drodo Studio released Dota Auto Chess, a mod for Dota 2 that fused elements of Chess, a Warcraft 3 mod called Pokemon Defense, and characters from Dota 2. The game gained a lot of attention, and many thought it could be the next DOTA – a genre-defining game. Several studios attempted to jump on the new hype train including Valve with Dota Underlords, and Riot with Teamfight Tactics.
However, unlike DOTA, auto chess interest spluttered out like a melting candle, as seen in the Google trend chart for the term “auto chess” below. It is also important to note that this spluttering out has happened across platforms.
Currently, the Chinese version of Teamfight Tactics (called 金铲铲之战 or Battle of the Golden Spatula) is by far the most successful Autochess game by a huge margin. It is essentially a one game market. Do note that data.ai does not include Chinese Android revenue, so BGS’ revenue is likely a lot higher than shown. Given the difficulty of entering the Chinese market, it's unlikely that a western developer would be able to repeat BGS’ success there and the market has generally proven that there isn’t a huge appetite for this sort of complex strategy gameplay in the West.
So why did one mod (DOTA) go on to define a genre, while the other (Auto Chess) burst onto the scene only to fade into obscurity? Why hasn’t there been a breakout hit, especially early in the hype cycle? The reasons below are stated from a mobile-first perspective (since this is a mobile F2P focussed report), but some of the points are also applicable across platforms:
- Overwhelming ruleset: Auto Chess can be very overwhelming with its rules and multiple rounds, which is an instant mood-kill for the generally fickle mobile gamer. Actions made in the early rounds can have huge repercussions in the later ones, and it generally requires a lot of thinking ahead. If you’re not familiar with Auto Chess, check out this FTUE for Studio Drodo’s Auto Chess and see how much anything makes sense to you.
- Very long session times: A single game of Auto Chess takes ages to complete. Depending on how well you do, you’re looking at 30-50 minutes of game time. There are very few subgenres on mobile that can command such long session times and still drive massive amounts of engagement and revenue, and those subgenres are usually the ones that are able to drive high amounts of second-to-second or minute-to-minute micro-engagement. That brings us to the next point.
- Idling dominates a session: A lot of the above mentioned 30-50 minute sessions are just on standby. If you’ve made a decision during a preparation round, you just have to wait around till the timer ends. Then there’s the passive combat rounds that can take a while to resolve. It all ends up with a lot of darn waiting around, which just doesn’t jive with driving extended engagement on the mobile platform where there are continuously all kinds of applications and notifications vying for one’s attention.
- Highly complex strategy: Facing multiple opponents in a live PvP setting is one of auto-chess’ key differentiating features, but it is also a very sharp double-edged sword. Facing multiple opponents is difficult. Each opponent brings their own strategies and squad makeup, meaning that you need a galaxy brain to build a team that can go against everyone. Therefore, a path to game mastery is not a clear or obvious one, which can significantly kill a player’s long-term motivation to engage with this subgenre.
- Lack of obvious live-service monetisation hooks: For any PvP-based game that wants to implement live-service style F2P monetisation, game developers always need to ask whether they want to go down the pay-to-win route or not while ensuring the gameplay is fair. Auto chess faces the same dilemma and implementing F2P monetisation tactics is not very straightforward here.
All the above likely has something to do with auto-chess’ roots being a DOTA mod that was created for players that are already heavily immersed in the world of DOTA. The mod was never created with the goal of becoming a mass-market genre. That pursuit was taken up by professional game developers alone and has resulted in the current state of the subgenre. And suffice to say, in its original form, Auto Chess just isn’t very friendly for all but hardcore players. It is not very easy to learn and feels near impossible to master. In other words, auto-chess gameplay needs high amounts of refinement to grow out of its very niche state.
To be fair, the original DOTA mod had similar issues – particularly with the length of a game and the complexity around hero builds and equipment recipes. However, the fundamental ruleset is simple, every session is highly action-packed and there is a clear path to mastery. You’re always attacking something, whether it be creeps, neutral monsters, or enemies. The power progression in a match is also simple, once you’ve learnt the recipes. It boils down to kill enemies > earn gold and XP > level up > get stronger.
But the number one reason we believe Auto Chess will not spread like DOTA (unless big design changes are made) is that the onboarding for beginners is way more brutal. In DOTA, one can choose a cool hero and meaningfully participate in a game, even as a n00b. Sure they might be a feeder, but they’re killing creeps, leveling up, and casting spells. With Auto Chess, in one’s first ever round, they’re presented with choice paralysis. They have no idea what these troops are and what they do, but a 1h session-lasting choice needs to be made in 20 seconds!
However, some developers continue to find something alluring with the Autochess formula. They feel that if they can only just crack the nut that is the genre’s complex ruleset and long play times, they’d have the next Clash Royale, including the creators of Clash Royale themselves. Developed by Supercell’s Shanghai studio (which opened its doors in 2018), Clash Mini was soft launched in 2021. With Clash Mini, Supercell has attempted to distill the complexity into a somewhat bite-sized format, with games ending within 5 minutes. Still, its long gestation period points to Supercell’s struggles in getting it right. Besides Supercell, there are also other developers who have also tried their hand at simplifying or changing the original Auto Chess formula. We present several examples and the changes they’ve enacted below.
- Created by Supercell’s Shanghai studio (which opened its doors in 2018).
- Improvements over traditional Auto Chess
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
- Smaller boards, no class or faction bonuses, and no items.
- The number of units you can place is not capped by player level
- Default match type is 1v1 (Duels)
- The PvPvP Rumble mode is only 1v5 (as of update 7) and is a tournament-style elimination rather than the health-based system in original Auto Chess.
- Players bring in a deck of troops from which to select instead of the shared pool between players.
- To combat the long session and idle times:
- The standard mode is 1v1 and a best of 3 rounds won, vastly shortening game times to 4-5 minutes.
- Frenzy mode kicks in after 20 seconds to help bring a round to resolution.
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
Random Dice: GO
- Created by 111% who are behind the Tower Defence game Random Dice
- Improvements over traditional Auto Chess
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
- Instead of picking from a selection of 5 troops to put into your hand, then playing them on the board, Random Dice: GO presents a series of binary choices between dice from your deck. See how it works here.
- The dice presentation of units helps players quickly visualize the relative strength of your and your opponent’s units, though it makes the game feel less immersive.
- Matches are 1v1
- Like Clash Mini, you build a deck to bring into a match.
- To combat the long session and idle times:
- Player health is simplified to 5 hearts per player. A heart is removed when a round is lost.
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
Super Auto Pets
- Made by Team Wood Games, it’s the team’s debut title.
- Improvements over traditional Auto Chess
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
- This features the biggest departure from traditional autochess. Super Auto Pets eschews the top down game board and battles are played in sideways 2D. See example gameplay here.
- Matches are 1v1
- There’s a maximum troop limit of 5 animals
- Again, you build a deck to bring into a match. This seems to be the “meta” for games aiming to simplify Auto Chess.
- To combat the long session and idle times:
- The game is played completely asynchronously. You prepare your squad and then are matched with another player’s squad immediately. See a how-to-play video here.
- To combat the overwhelming ruleset & complex PvPvP strategy:
While the above are changes in the right direction, it hasn’t been enough to generate breakout hits that have both mass-market appeal and healthy long-term monetisation. Of course, we need to wait and see whether Clash Mini does go global and change that fact.
In our opinion, what Auto Chess needs to reach a mass market is a close examination of its “essence”, then removing the superfluous, which is similar to what Supercell is doing with Clash Mini. Using the same table we used in the analysis of Supercell’s “formula”, this is what we believe Auto Chess’ essence is.
While the choices above are arguable (and in fact this selection of essences differs to that of Supercell’s), it’s less important what key ingredients one picks and more important that one finds their own set of key pillars based on deeply analyzing the genre/existing games, ruthlessly culling out the non-essentials, and leaning into the core. Beyond that, there are a few things that a new Auto Chess game should take heed of based on past failures:
- Player onboarding: Can a newcomer completely unfamiliar with the genre grok the systems? Can they experience success quickly? Is the path to mastery clear?
- Match length: Not many have the patience to sit down for a 40 minute game, not to mention one where one missed round can screw up your match. How can you reduce match time while keeping the essence intact?
- Wait times: How can you reduce the wait times or make them less boring?
- Cognitive load: Take a good hard look at the amount of information you’re asking the player to process. What is crucial for the player experience and what can be discarded?
- Monetisation and live-ops: How can you design for a live-service enabled future while still ensure fair gameplay to your players?
So is “mass-market auto-chess” an oxymoron? If you’re releasing a game that keeps more or less the same ruleset, then yes. Said differently, if you’re thinking about building a new auto-chess title today without making any fundamental changes to its original form, your game is likely going to be DOA. However, we believe that there is a nugget of gold underneath this desolate looking field. It just needs someone to go digging for it in the right place.
In summary, we’d like to end with resurfacing the following image.
There is no denying that the post-IDFA impact is real across mobile F2P and the Strategy/Card genre is no stranger to it. While this revenue decline might additionally be driven by a post-COVID decline and fluctuating global inflation rates, it only underscores that times in mobile F2P have never been more uncertain.
The good news is that Strategy/Card game developers are not sitting back twiddling their thumbs and waiting for this downcycle to play out. There is a lot of interesting movement in the genre. Iteration and innovation are two key themes that are naturally emanating from various Strategy/Card subgenres, as is seen with 4X’s top of the funnel efforts to combat against lowered targeted UA capabilities post-IDFA, or Supercell’s continued quest to define and redefine genres through “finding the essence of fun”, or Marvel Snap’s success with a risky and never seen before CCG monetisation strategy, or Auto-chess’ incremental attempts to break into the mass-market.
What’s clear is that Strategy/Card game developers cannot stay still during these uncertain times because playing the wait-and-see game will likely mean a slow death. And when the playing field has been leveled to some extent like never before, we’re reminded of Sun Tzu’s words:
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”