Executive Summary

  • Playdemic’s Golf Clash rose to fame in 2017 as a casual multiplayer golf simulator. Despite no real world franchise ties, it became a blockbuster hit.
  • Golf Clash has generated $789 million in lifetime revenue from 64 million downloads to date. The game has remained the No. 1 golf game in the U.S. and U.K. top grossing charts. This spurred Electronic Arts to acquire Playdemic in 2021 for an eye-popping $1.4 billion in hopes of expanding its struggling mobile sports portfolio.
  • In 2018, Golf Rival, a near-perfect clone from Chinese startup StarLark arrived on the scene, capturing a staggering 30% market share in just under four years, becoming the second largest casual golf simulator game by revenue.
  • Golf Rival’s success piqued Zynga’s interest. Zynga bought Golf Rival and StarLark for $525 million in 2021, around the same time as Electronic Arts acquired Playdemic.
  • On the surface, Golf Rival is a clear copy of Golf Clash, but upon deeper analysis, there are substantial gameplay, visual fidelity, monetization and live-ops differences and improvements. This, in turn, is turning up the heat on Golf Clash 
  • Golf Rival has already surpassed Golf Clash in downloads with a CAGR (February 2019 to February 2023) growth of +8% while the latter has nosedived by -39%. 
  • Golf Rival’s success is a pristine example of how a clone can arrive on the scene and capture share from the market leader, even despite a first mover advantage.
  • The two key acquisitions from major gaming publishers helps illustrate the influence such M&A deals can have on the growth trajectory of standalone games.

Understanding the Rivalry 

The F2P sports simulation category has long been dominated by real-world franchises from gaming giants like EA Sports and 2K (FIFA, MADDEN, NBA, etc.) that honed their respective pedigrees on PC/console before replicating success on mobile. 

Franchise ties with prestigious sports clubs and the ability to play as your own favorite sports heroes like Lionel Messi or Michael Jordan organically attracts millions of fans and helps create a very engaged player base.

EA sport’s impressive real world franchise, mobile sports games portfolio.

In 2017, a little known U.K.-based developer, Playdemic, launched a casual, real-time PvP golf simulator titled Golf Clash. Despite no real-world franchise ties, the game went on to become a massive hit and remains one of the most popular F2P sports games. 

Playdemic was founded in 2009 in Manchester by Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby, both of whom initially set out to develop social games mainly for Facebook but later also for Android and iOS platforms. Both founders had a history at Rockpool Games, a U.K.-based developer that created content for mobile devices and other mobile companies before that. 

Playdemic has a rich history of parent companies. The company was first acquired by software company RockYou in 2010. When RockYou faced financial instability later that year, Playdemic orchestrated a management buyout to reclaim ownership of the company. In 2017, TT Games (by then a subsidiary of Warner Bros.’ gaming division) acquired Playdemic to bolster its mobile footprint and four years later sold the company to EA. 

Undoubtedly, Golf Clash is Playdemic Studios’ biggest hit. According to data.ai, Golf Clash has amassed $789 million in lifetime revenue and 64 million in downloads worldwide. With a revenue per download (RPD) of $12, Golf Clash has been a serious cash cow for Playdemic. 

Before Golf Clash, the mobile market had its share of golf simulator games, but these were mostly poor ports of existing PC/console simulators that leaned far more heavily into the simulator genre. They felt unintuitive, hard to play, and unfit for mobile phones. 

Golf Clash broke the mold with its mobile-first design. At its core, the game is still a golf simulator, but Playdemic incorporated modern multiplayer elements like real-time PvP matchmaking, ultra-intuitive slingshot control, realistic but casually styled graphics, and straightforward onboarding to make the game a breeze to get into it — even for players unfamiliar with real-world golf. 

The success of Golf Clash can be attributed in part to its appeal among a wealthier player base that is acquainted with and engaged in real-world golf. This niche allowed Playdemic to cater to a dedicated audience, bolstering the game's popularity among enthusiasts of the highly competitive and somewhat expensive pastime. This factor also contributed to Golf Clash's popularity among older players with disposable income.

Golf Clash’s runaway success led to Playdemic’s subsequent acquisition by EA in September 2021 for a whopping sum of $1.4 billion. Many in the industry questioned the price tag, and later in this post we’ll examine the nature of the deal and whether it ultimately has proved successful for EA. 

The Feud: Where There is Honey, the Bees Are Sure to Follow

As a first mover, Golf Clash enjoyed a blissful period of uninterrupted growth while cornering the market on casual golf simulation games in its early years. However, its successful reign was soon challenged by a directly cloned contender, aptly named Golf Rival and developed by Beijing-based Chinese studio StarLark. The game has been constantly growing its market share since its 2018 launch, becoming the second largest golf game by revenue in 2023 and following hot on the heels of Golf Clash.

Simulation Golf Games Market Share 2018 versus 2022. Source: data.ai

In 2018, Golf Clash commanded a 92% share of the golf simulation market share in terms of revenue, while newcomer Golf Rival was sitting at a meagre 1.4%. Fast forward to 2022, Golf Rival was able to increase its market share to a much more impressive 28%. We’ve also seen a number of smaller contenders like Miniclip’s Ultimate Golf from Mini Clip enter the market, in turn lowering Golf Clash’s overall market share to 51%. 

Golf Clash and Golf Rival’s download trends from January 2017 to February 2023. Source: data.ai

Golf Clash’s revenue has been on a downward trajectory since peaking in March 2019, and this decline has accelerated since EA acquired the company in late 2021 and Apple introduced its iOS privacy changes with App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Between January 2019 and January 2023, Golf Clash’s revenue has nosedived by 59%. Across the same time frame, we see Golf Rival has increased its revenue by 594%.

This growth earned Zynga’s attention, and the social game publisher bought StarLark in October 2021 for $525 million, around the same time EA was closing its Golf Clash deal. Zynga paid almost one third the price EA paid for Golf Clash. 

Needless to say, the turf war between Golf Clash and Golf Rivals has now become a proxy war between EA and Zynga, as the two giants lock horns to fight for the same pool of lucrative F2P casual golf players. StarLark’s acquisition not only gave Zynga access to the second largest multiplayer golf game in the app store, but it also helped the company gain a foothold in China, as Zynga’s first Chinese studio.

In this full game deconstruction we will cover:

  • Player psychology: demographic reasons behind higher RPD of golf games 
  • Deep dive on the game design of Golf Clash
  • Whether Golf Rival is an exact clone, or if there’s more than meets the eye?
  • A look at the two game’s monetization and live-ops strategies
  • A comparison of the two games’ UA strategies
  • How and why Golf Rival is stealing Golf Clash’s lunch?
  • Who got the better deal, EA or Zynga?
  • Suggestions for future improvements

Player Demographics: Why Golf Games Enjoy an Exceptionally High RPD?

A contributing factor to the success of F2P mobile golf simulation games is their remarkably higher RPD, despite having relatively smaller download numbers. Golf Clash boasts an RPD of $12, while Golf Rival has an RPD of $7, even though their download figures are modest compared to other sports or major franchise-led games. When compared to the RPD of franchise-led games like FIFA Soccer and Madden, it's evident that golf simulation games are significantly more profitable.

Source: data.ai

Franchise-led mobile sports games such as FIFA Soccer and NBA LIVE have RPDs of around $1.31 and $0.90 respectively, which are significantly lower than the RPDs of games like Golf Clash ($12.32) and Golf Rival ($6.59).

The exceptionally high RPD in golf simulation games can likely be attributed to the nature of real-world golf and the demographic makeup of the player base engaging with these games on mobile devices. As of December 2022, there are 66.6 million registered golfers worldwide, according to research from the Sports Marketing Survey. Unlike many other real-world sports that suffered due to COVID lockdowns, golf actually experienced an increase in participation, as it was one of the few sports that could be safely played while maintaining social distancing.

Another factor contributing to the high RPD is that golf, as a real-world sport, is most popular in Tier-1 countries like the U.S., the U.K., and those of Western Europe.

Source: National Golf Foundation, USA

Out of the 66.6 million golfers worldwide, we can see that roughly half the number of golfers are based in the U.S. alone, and the global golf course market has grown to $26 billion.

Source: National Golf Foundation, USA

This demographic distribution is mirrored in the downloads and revenue charts of both Golf Clash and Golf Rival, where we see the highest traffic and revenue originating from the U.S. and the U.K.

Golf Clash Revenue by Country Chart, Source: data.ai
Golf Rival Revenue by Country Chart, Source: data.ai

Golf, by its very nature, is an expensive hobby to engage in and maintain, unlike other recreation sports like pool or tennis. Put more plainly, it is a sport for the wealthy that requires significant time and resource investment. 

Whether you’re an amateur or a regular golfer, the entry cost — expensive clubs, golf course fees and memberships — is relatively high compared to other sports. As we can see in the graphs below, that partially explains why the golf simulator genre is so popular with the older 30 to 45-plus demographic. 

More than 90% players of both games ares between the age of 25 to 45-plus. Source: data.ai

The high real-world cost of golf lowers the spending barrier for players. When the same group of golfers with significant disposable income engages with the game on mobile devices, they may be more likely to spend generously, resulting in an unusually high RPD and a higher LTV player base. A similar demographic and spending pattern can be observed in social casino games as well.

Game Design Deep Dive: Golf Clash

Golf Clash’s core gameplay loop involves players placing soft currency wagers in turn-based PvP matches. Players can win (or lose) trophies, coins, and timed chests as rewards. Chests can be set to unlock for rewards (like coins, gems, and club shards), and clubs can be upgraded with coins. Earning trophies and leveling up opens subsequent tours with increasing wagers, more difficult golf courses, and more experienced opponents.

Golf Clash’s Core Loop Diagram.

Golf Clash borrows heavily from the design of Supercell’s Clash Royale, both aesthetically as well as in terms of its meta mechanics. This is visible in the UI/UX and integration of mechanics like timed chest unlocking, progression paths, and trophy rewards for unlocking the next progressive Tours (equivalent of Arenas in Clash Royale). 

Comparison between Golf Clash and Clash Royale UX/UI and progression paths.

Apart from the golf-based gameplay, almost all of the other game design choices are heavily inspired from Clash Royale. This choice is interesting because there could have been several other ways Golf Clash could have designed its interfaces, meta loop, and progression. But as I touched on in the past in an article for Gamasutra, Clash Royale's menu and flow design are a great example of a game that falls within casual mid-core space. Its seamless transition from one tab to the other minimizes wait times, which is a refreshing experience compared to more prevalent lobby screen flows with multiple drill downs and load times found in most games.

Golf Clash is highly accessible for casual players due to its user-friendly navigation, fast onboarding, enjoyable PvP experience, and progression system. At the same time, it caters to mid-core players seeking more depth and challenge with its progressively difficult tours and the need to master various factors that impact gameplay, such as course obstacles, gear/club collection, and upgrades. This balance positions Golf Clash in the “Goldilocks” zone: extremely easy to pick up, but difficult to master.

It is exactly the kind of gameplay balance that many developers aspire to for mass market success in the F2P space. Even though we have seen a fair amount of similarity between the meta and progression systems of Golf Clash and Clash Royale, this similarity ends when it comes to core gameplay. 

To its full credit, Golf Clash's core gameplay design stands out on its own in terms of accessibility, learnability, and the right balance of handholding and mastery, which has a very broad appeal to engage and peak interest of both casual and more hard core gamers. You can enjoy the game even if you don't care about golf at all.

Breaking Down Golf Clash’s Accessibility

Golf Clash’s sling release system in part follows closely the perfect timing shift mechanics you find in games like CSR Racing 2. 

CSR2: Precision sling release controls.

In CSR2 players need to time the alignment of the arrow with color-coded accuracy zones, players can achieve different degrees of accuracy in their gear shift like Perfect, Good, Late etc. Golf Clash uses a similar sling release system, holding and releasing the ball (as shown below). 

Golf Clash: CSR2 inspired precision sling release controls.

Timing the ball release with the arrow's movement at the perfect moment (central yellow dot) increases the likelihood of executing various precision shots, such as Great, Perfect, or Sliced. The closer you are to the center and within the green zone, the better your shot accuracy.

However, unlike CSR2, perfecting the timing of the precision sling system does not guarantee the best or optimal outcome. For instance, you may execute a great shot, but it could still hit a tree or land in an obstacle like a sand pit. While the precision system can help achieve optimal shots, players must also learn to navigate various environmental factors and level design obstacles for the best results.

These factors can include: landing the ball as close to the hole as possible; avoiding course obstacles (such as trees, ponds, and sand pits); and accounting for wind speed, ground debuffs, and — to some extent — the type of ball and putter's characteristics. All of these can impact your performance and every shot you take.

Variable factors players have to master in Golf Clash.

Numerous factors beyond just adhering to the "timed sling release" precision system can influence the outcome of your shots. These elements work together to provide Golf Clash (and Golf Rival) players with a rich blend of tactical and strategic gameplay options:

  • Sling Release Precision: Timing and releasing your shot according to the guidance system to achieve various degrees of precision shots.
  • Player Gear: Club and ball characteristics, which offer buffs and debuffs such as distance covered and swing, among others.
  • Environmental Factors: Wind, golf course level length, water hazards, and ground debuffs depending on the surface type the ball lands on, including fairway, rough, sand pit, etc.

These factors not only increase the decision-making choices for the player but also make the gameplay more enjoyable and varied for core gamers.

PvP Experience

Good matchmaking algorithms (MMA) lie at the heart of any strong PvP-based games. Golf Clash does a good job of ensuring players are relatively evenly matched based on their skill and experience in the game. Early on, your chance of winning is about 50-50, which avoids grief for players who start far down the ladder. But these odds may change as you become an advanced player.

Golf Clash features Tours with increasing wagers/entry fees.

There are different progressive tours that can be unlocked via the trophy system. All of them have a linearly progressive entry fee or wager that you have to pay in coins. In return, winning a game doubles the coins you disbursed for entry and will also increase your trophy count.

If players lose too many games in a row, they lose coins, trophies, and potential chests that replenish the coin supply. Once cash strapped, players are prevented from playing the game indefinitely, in turn fueling other parts of the game’s progression and economy.

Similar to Clash Royale, trophy count is a reflection of a player’s overall skill level. Increasing your trophy count by winning matches unlocks new tours in which the stakes are higher and players can win larger prizes. Trophy count is also used for matching players with opponents of a similar skill. One can’t farm beginner tours forever, as they tend to yield a maximum of only 20 trophies.

Golf Rival’s Cloning Strategy: Is It More Than Meets The Eye?

It is no secret that StarLark, which launched its golf simulator after Golf Clash’s release, cloned the competition’s core loop, including what Playdemic borrowed from Clash Royale. StarLark cloned Golf Clash’s core gameplay, meta loop, and interface design almost to a tee. 

Golf Clash and Golf Rival screen comparisons.

Although Golf Rival may initially appear to be an exact replica of Golf Clash, there are several critical differences that we will explore. These distinguishing features indeed address some of Golf Clash's pain points and capitalize on underutilized opportunities, potentially giving Golf Rival a gradual advantage over the leading Golf Clash. 

Let’s go through these differences one by one. 

1) Graphics and Low-End Device Support

At first glance, the most noticeable difference between the games is the art style, as well as the overall quality of the graphics. Golf Rival seems like a somewhat lower-budget version of Golf Clash. 

Observe the difference in art styles, texture detail, lighting, and overall quality between the two games.

This difference is clear in the quality of textures, shaders, lighting, and level of detail in close-up shots of the game is more apparent in Golf Rival. StarLark’s art style leans more towards realism compared to the slightly stylized and arcade-y feel of Golf Clash's environments and graphics, which give StarLark’s title a more casual appeal. Although Golf Rival's graphics are less detailed, the increased realism may be more attractive to a hardcore golf-loving player base. Ultimately, both games fall within the golf simulation space, and this added realism can enhance the sensation of playing and competing against opponents as if on a real golf course.

The distinction in visual quality and level of detail in graphics might not solely be a design choice; it could also be a strategic decision. By choosing lower-fidelity graphics, Golf Rival gains an advantage in running on lower-end Android devices, capturing market share in Asia and LATAM markets where phone configurations are generally cheaper compared to those in Western and European markets.

Opting for low-fidelity graphics enables the game to load faster and run more smoothly on 4G and 5G networks, which can also contribute to market penetration in developing regions. This approach is reminiscent of the strategy employed by games like Garena Free Fire, which features lower-quality visuals compared to other major battle royale games. However, these comparatively subpar graphics actually give games like Garena's a competitive edge, making it the leading mobile-friendly battle royale in LATAM and Southeast Asian markets.

Tier-1 countries still lead when looking at the revenue breakdown. But when looking at downloads we can see a rising share of Tier-2 countries like India, where the ability to run on low-end devices and 3G/4G networks can prove to be a significant advantage. 

Golf Rival’s downloads distribution. Source: data.ai

Testing both the games on Wi-Fi and on 4G, you can see how Golf Clash takes longer to load with more lag when compared to Golf Rivals. 

2) Deviation from Standard Wager Mechanics

A significant yet subtle difference between Golf Rival and Golf Clash lies in the elimination of wager-based mechanics in the former. In Golf Clash, when players enter a tour to compete against an opponent, they must pay an entry fee or wager. The combined wager amount becomes the total coin reward for the winner, along with various types of timed chests and a change in trophy count. Golf Rival, on the other hand, does not include this feature.

In essence, the wager system in Golf Clash serves as an energy mechanic, limiting the number of matches a player can participate in based on their win rate while also pacing progression and content consumption. Each day, Golf Clash players receive a certain amount of coins upon logging in through daily login features, including a free chest available every four hours, timed chests earned through play, and free coins for watching ads. Players can use these coins to participate in a specific number of matches before depleting their coin balance through wagers or club upgrades.

Each PvP match in Golf Clash has coin entry fees associated with the Tour the player is participating in. Golf Rival has no such wagers or entry fees for core gameplay matches.

This is where Golf Rival made an important design change. There is no wager system or entry fees in Golf Rival, which means a player can play as many matches as they want in the tours they’ve qualified for. The wager system in Golf Clash can be annoying for many average or non-VIP players, as given the 50-50 chance of winning this means a player can only play a set number of matches before they run out of coins. At that point, a player must wait for their coin balance to replenish via timed chests or other appointment mechanics. This can block the player from engaging in more matches within a single session.

Before each match entry fee from each player goes into a collective wager, showing the total coin prize for the winner in Golf Clash.

Golf Rival’s removal of wager mechanics actually gives an incentive to Golf Clash players to jump into StarLark’s title as it removes an important player pain point by getting rid of the limit on matches a player can engage in. Of course, the trophy count is still affected by your win-loss ratio, so it does act as a deterrent to playing and losing too many matches in a row. But overall this is an important differentiator that appeals to Golf Clash players who might be feeling the pinch of match restriction after they have exhausted their daily coin balance. 

    No “Rematch” button in Golf Rival unlike Golf Clash

Another difference worth mentioning is the lack of “rematch” (aka the revenge button) in Golf Rival when compared to Golf Clash. In Golf Clash, when you lose a PvP match, you see an option for “rematch” with the opponent. This fuels further engagement and gives the losing player a chance to redeem themselves if the opponent accepts the rematch. Surprisingly this feature is missing from Golf Rival. 

One explanation could be, given a player can play unlimited matches, the “rematch” or “revenge” button is unnecessary, or it’s possible Golf Rival relies heavily on bots in order to facilitate matchmaking and hence doesn't want players interacting with the same bot too frequently.

3) Animation Fidelity and Session Times

Just as we discussed earlier how the graphics and visual fidelity of Golf Rival is relatively subpar compared to Golf Clash, which we believe could be a deliberate choice to run on lower-end devices and networks, you might notice a similar difference in the quality of animations between the two games. These refer to reward moments like slow-mo shots of the ball slicing through the air, climax shot cutscenes, and even chest-opening animations.

Animation is indeed important for creating rich and memorable reward moments for players — such as the slow-mo and applause effects when a player has a near miss or lands a perfect shot. These can act as excitement boosters and they also help replicate the experience of watching live professional golf complete with crowd reactions. 

It’s also equally true that when a player has seen a certain animation hundreds of times in their sessions, these sequences can start to feel repetitive. We see an example of this in the chest reveal animations of Golf Clash, in which the player has to tap the screen repeatedly to reveal successive cards. Given that in an average session, a player can open between four to five chests within one session, this can lead to significant fatigue. Each chest can contain between three to six cards, which requires constant tapping. That’s why in later versions of the game we see the introduction of a “Skip All” button, which takes players directly to the summary screen. 

Golf Clash had to add an “Skip” button years after launch to avoid player fatigue of watching the chest opening animation multiple times within a session.

When comparing the in-game animations of Golf Rival and Golf Clash — particularly cutscenes featuring the ball flying across the course after a shot, celebration/applause, and near-miss animations — there is a noticeable difference not only in visual quality, but also in duration. It's subtle, but Golf Rival's animations are slightly shorter than those in Golf Clash. This reduction in animation time shaves off a few seconds from each game session, allowing players to spend less time passively watching the ball and more time actively engaging with the game. Consequently, Golf Rival matches tend to be faster compared to those in Golf Clash.

Cutscene animations are central to core gameplay of Golf simulator games. In Golf Rival, they are apparently a few seconds faster than Golf Clash.

Arguably there is no exact formula for figuring out the perfect duration of in-app animation. At the end of the day, the sequence needs to be appealing and capable of creating special moments for the player, but as we know mobile players have shorter attention spans and the repetitive nature/frequency of repeated animations can lead to fatigue. 

Golf Clash features engaging and satisfying reward animations; however, they can become repetitive and lengthy over time. Golf Rival, whether intentionally or not, has shorter animation loops that save a few seconds per session, potentially leading to quicker game completion and reduced player fatigue.

4) Player Education & Contextual Tutorials

Golf Rival excels in providing contextual education for players when compared to Golf Clash. As the game progresses and new obstacles or environmental hazards are introduced, Golf Rival offers special tutorials that explain factors such as wind and ground debuffs, as well as demonstrating shots like slicing the ball over tall trees. While Golf Clash features similar obstacles, it only lightly hints at them instead of providing thorough guidance.

Golf Rival lays special emphasis on teaching players about each obstacle and overcoming them.

Golf Rival’s monetization depends more on selling club cards, balls, and special balls as opposed to Golf Clash’s hefty coin purchases required for wager entry into higher level tours and tournaments. All the functional goods like clubs and balls help overcome these course-specific environmental challenges, so it makes sense for Golf Rival to educate players in great detail about these obstacles.

Live Ops: Events & Tournaments

Golf Clash Live-Ops

Live-ops in Golf Clash centers mainly around Golden Shot events and two kinds of Tournaments.

Golden Shot Promotions: Players get a free chance to take part in the Golden Shot feature, which is promoted multiple times in a week. Players can access the feature once for free and then pay for additional access by buying single or multiple entry shots.

Golden Shot Levels
Golden Shot Reward Distribution

This feature provides a heady mix of skill (ability to land the ball as close to the hole and within the coloured rings) and luck. Based on where the ball eventually lands, players can earn a wide range of variable chest rewards, thereby refreshing the day-to-day game experience.

In addition to Golden Shot single-player events, there are two kinds of Tournaments in Golf Clash:

Week-long Tournaments: These run for seven days and are divided into three parts:

  1. Qualifying Round: Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday
  2. Opening Round: Thursday & Friday)
  3. Weekend Round: Saturday & Sunday

Tournaments are scored differently to other Golf Clash matches. Your score is based on the number of shots you take to complete the hole. The fewer shots a player takes, the better the score.

In the qualifying round, a player goes head-to-head against a handful of other golfers from outside their league; the lower you score (in terms of shots taken) the higher up you land on the leaderboard. Those who qualify proceed to the opening round where they are in a much bigger league with very competitive players. Only the best of the best proceed to the weekend round, where players meet the best golfers from around the world. Each player that reaches this stage receives a prize, which is determined by their final score.

Qualifying players rank on a leaderboard
Tournaments require hefty entry fees.

Nine-Hole Cup Tournament: These are much shorter, running for three days, and are split into three parts:

  1. Qualifying Round 1: Thursdays
  2. Qualifying Round 2: Fridays
  3. Final Round: Saturday 

The tournament rules are the same as the weekly tournaments, but each round now consists of nine holes. Both tournament formats change the rules of scoring and winning and take the PvP aspect to “best of the best” players in the game, which appeals to the most competitive players.

Golf Rival Live-Ops

Golf Rival hosts a more active and diverse mix of competitive events than Golf Clash. These include Special Events, Tournaments, Arena Battles, and a new mode called Kingdom. Golf Rival’s events system caters to both single-player and multiplayer competitions.

Golf Rival: Live Ops Schedule

Special Events: Short Duration Events

Each Special Challenge features unique conditions and offers one-time rewards for reaching a specific number of wins for the first time in that challenge. In special events like "Playing on the Edge - Lucky Leprechaun," the goal is to get the ball as close to the hole as possible. If the ball goes in, a happy leprechaun appears and knocks it out. The event has two difficulty levels: normal and difficult, with greater rewards for higher difficulty. This event provides a refreshing change from the usual pressure players face to sink the ball in standard game modes.

Lucky Leprechaun Events

Star Challenge Event: Week-Long Event

In this format, players collect stars on the course, accumulate them to increase their star level, and unlock various rewards. There are four different difficulty levels to choose from: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Nightmare. Each challenge is available only as a single-player mode. To earn stars, a player must complete levels, and the star level resets at the next event.

Star Event Difficulty Levels

Players can increase their star level and unlock more rewards with the Star Pass. This is an event-specific pass, priced at $4.99. When a player buys it, they can unlock all bonus rewards. The Star Pass can be purchased at any time during the event. Each event also requires an entry ticket, which players can earn in game or buy with gems.

The Kingdom: Month-Long Event

The Kingdom is a new medieval-themed tournament in Golf Rival. Bots and replays are prohibited, as this is a PvP challenge for the most engaged and competitive players.

Kingdom Event Season

The opponent you face in the Kingdom is determined by your current rank and trophy number. The number of opponent trophies can be twice as much as yours, but the opponents you picked up in the Kingdom will only be three ranks higher or lower than your current rank, so a level banding is applied to keep the matchmaking balanced. 

The stage where the competition will take place will only be up to two levels above or below your current stage. The club level of competitors is also taken into account. Participating players receive rank-up rewards as they progress through different ranks in the challenge like Count, Marquis, Duke, and King.

Challenge Pass

Players also receive a “Season Chest” based on their final rank after one month. Players who buy the “Season Pass” at any time during the season can claim all current and previous unlocked bonus rewards.

All in all, both games have a regular cadence of daily and weekly events to engage their player bases, but Golf Rival’s event calendar seems to be more elaborate. It accounts for both single-player and multiplayer events, which last for two to three days, followed by tournaments and arena battles that have week-long engagement, and finally Kingdom mode and seasonal events, which can last over a month.

All Things Money Can Buy

The two games have near-identical approaches to in-game store design and item sales. At this point, it’s difficult to determine whether Golf Clash is cloning Golf Rival’s store or vice versa. In terms of item selection, both stores include special bundled offers with various price and volume discounts, buying balls with buffs and debuffs, and IAP packs for coins and gems. 

The difference comes down to luck/skill-based mini-games and other trending monetization features the two games use to distinguish their monetisation strategy. Golf Rival also sells a wider array of items and boosts compared to Golf Clash.

Top IAP’s in Golf Clash (App Store)

Source: iOS App Store

The top-selling offer in Golf Clash is the "Golden Shot Single," a gacha-style minigame in which players aim to land the ball within one of the colored rings close to the hole. Each colored ring corresponds to an increasingly valuable chest reward. The skill- and luck-based nature of this feature, including near wins and misses, appeals to players' gambling instincts.

Ascending chest rewards provide a range of items, from rare clubs and cards to special balls with various buffs and debuffs. Players have the opportunity to earn almost every item available in the store. However, environmental factors like ground debuffs, wind, and sling resistance vary with each session, making it difficult for players to predict the outcome.

Given how addictive “Golden Shot” is, we see the top two IAPs associated with this feature at price points of $0.99 and $4.99. In third place we see the “Opening Round Qualifier” pack at $3.99. This pack appeals to highly competitive players who want to take part in weekly tournaments. These tournaments often have qualifier rounds which not only require massive entry fees and wager caps, but also need special clubs, balls, and upgrades to qualify. 

Qualifying offers are popular with tournament driven competitive play
The first bar shows the percent of store revenue, while the second shows the percent of purchase volume. Source: data.ai

If we look at a year’s worth of data in U.S. only, top IAP offers are driven by Golden Shot purchases, qualifying offers, and gem purchases. We see a lot of gem purchases, as wager coin fees can go drastically higher in progressive tours and tournaments, and players need gems to buy more coins.

Top IAPs for Golf Rival

Source: iOS App Store

Top selling IAPs in Golf Rival include the “Piggy Bank” offer and the Challenge Pass (aka season pass). Both of these features are very popular in casual and mid-core games, and they are both noticeably missing from Golf Clash.

Piggy Bank has long been a first-time user conversion feature in many games, but since its first appearance in Slotomania, many different iterations have popped up in games across various genres.

At $2.99, the Piggy Bank is designed to be purchased multiple times by the player. Each time a player successfully lands the ball in the hole in the highest Stage/Tour available to them, 50 gems are added to the bank. The Piggy Bank becomes available for purchase once it contains 300 gems.

The second most popular purchase is the Challenge Pass, priced at $4.99. Similar to a typical battle pass, Challenge Passes offer players a range of rewards, as well as boosts and discounts for upgrading clubs. These upgrades are crucial in Golf Rival for overcoming environmental hazards and golf course obstacles.

The first bar shows the percent of  store revenue,  while the second shows the percent of purchase volume. Source: data.ai

If we look at a year's worth of data in U.S. only, top IAP offers in Golf Rivals are driven by Piggy Bank, Challenge Pass, and Arena bundle offers.

A significant distinction between the top-selling IAPs in Golf Clash and Golf Rival is the inclusion of higher-priced IAPs among the top four offers in Golf Rival.

Source: iOS App Store

The top-selling IAP in Golf Rival, "Piggy Bank," is priced at $2.99, while Golf Clash's "Golden Shot Single" is priced at $0.99. Additionally, the fourth most popular offer in Golf Rival, "Arena Super Deal," is nearly $5 more expensive than the fourth best-selling bundle in Golf Clash. Although the total revenue is determined by the volume of purchases, this indicates that Golf Rival is more successful at frequently selling higher-priced IAPs to its players compared to Golf Clash.

Comparing Golf Clash and Golf Rival’s RPD curves (above) since launch, we can see that even though Golf Rival has a lower RPD than Golf Clash, the growth trajectory of both the games is similar. If Golf Rival continues to surpass Golf Clash in downloads, combined with its ability to sell higher margin IAPs, we can expect Golf Rival to surpass Golf Clash in the future. 

Despite Golf Rival having higher downloads and selling higher-margin IAPs than Golf Clash, its current RPD is slightly lower. For the explanation for this discrepancy, let’s discuss ad monetization.

Ad Monetization

Ad monetization in casual and mid-core game’s is quite common. Even though this monetization strategy is not as lucrative as direct IAP revenue, if implemented correctly ads can be a reliable revenue stream for monetizing non-paying users (NPUs). 

Golf Clash

In Golf Clash, ad monetization is primarily linked to acquiring free coins through watching video ads in the shop. Players can earn up to 200 coins per ad view and watch multiple ads to collect free coins. The shop's free offer section is the sole location where ads can be accessed in Golf Clash.

Estimating ad revenue data can be challenging, but by examining a one-year timeframe for the U.S. market alone, we can gather some insights. From January 2022 to January 2023, Golf Clash generated approximately $253,000 in ad revenue.

Ad revenue US only, Jan ‘22 - Jan ’23, Source: data.ai
Top countries by ad revenue in the period from January 2022 to January 2023. Source: data.ai

Golf Rival

Ad monetization in Golf Rival is more diversified and seamlessly incorporated, encouraging players to impulsively watch ads. Besides free shop offers, Golf Rival also allows players to earn one extra mystery reward card each time they open a chest. The mystery rewards vary, and since players can open multiple chests in a single session, they are prompted to watch ads on numerous occasions within that session.

Ad revenue for the U.S. only from January 2022 to January 2023. Source: data.ai
Top countries by ad revenue from January 2022 to January 2023. Source: data.ai

Golf Rival’s ad integration strategy seems more effective as the ad revenue comparison for the U.S. market shows Golf Rival generating 1.5x more ad revenue than Golf Clash in the same time period. 

Ad revenue for the U.S. only from January 2022 to January 2023. Source: data.ai

However, this higher ad revenue could also be cannibalizing IAPs to some extent, potentially contributing to the lower RPD as we saw earlier.

User Acquisition

Golf Clash’s UA Strategy

Golf Clash’s user acquisition (UA) mainly seems to be distributed across FB and Instagram. Most creatives revolve around showing a variety of golf courses across geographies, countries, and seasons. A Christmas-themed special creative was observed recently, too, and on Instagram the multiplayer aspect of the game is emphasized via video ads.

Ad creatives for golf enthusiasts tend to showcase a variety of picturesque golf courses and emphasize the ease of multiplayer gameplay. This appeals to the desire of many golf lovers to travel and play on exotic courses worldwide. Since being acquired by EA, Golf Clash's downloads have decreased, which could be attributed to factors such as budget cuts, EA's conservative approach to UA spending, and Apple’s ATT privacy changes that led to a widespread decline in downloads across the industry in 2022.

 Source: data.ai

Golf Clash has been looking more recently at using YouTubers and other influencers for promoting the game to its subscriber base. For example, a recent partnership involved doing promotional videos with celebrity YouTube coach Rick Shiels. 

Pro golf coach Rick Shiels’ influencer campaign.

Golf Rival’s UA Strategy

Golf Rival's UA creative distribution channels are more varied than those of Golf Clash, and its overall UA creative approach differs as well. Most of Golf Rival's creatives emphasize a puzzle-solving style, featuring "Fail" or "Pass" attempts on physics-based obstacle puzzles set in miniature golf courses, rather than the realistic golf courses found in the actual game. Although this approach leans towards pseudo-gameplay advertising (aka fake ads) in terms of puzzle-solving, these ads are, unfortunately, a prevalent trend in the current F2P gaming landscape.

Source: data.ai

Golf Rival’s downloads surpassed Golf Clash in early 2020, and it seems as if Golf Rival’s team is experimenting more with recent trends in UA creatives, like the popular puzzle solving trend.

Source: data.ai

EA vs. Zynga: Who Got the Better Deal?

EA acquired an established studio and a game dominating its subgenre (Golf Clash) for $1.4 billion in 2021, while Zynga purchased a start-up and an emerging game (Golf Rival) for $525 million in the same year. Zynga paid nearly a third of the price that EA paid.

So, who got the better deal? While the competition between the two continues, it's essential to consider the industry-wide downturn that almost all genres faced in 2022 due to factors like the ATT, macroeconomic inflation, and post-COVID normalization. To account for these economic fluctuations, we can examine the Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for the past four years, which should provide a more accurate reflection of growth. 

Revenue Chart (Feb’2019 - Feb’2023), Source: data.ai
Downloads Chart (Feb’2019 - Feb’2023), Source: data.ai

In the last four years, Golf Clash's revenue has declined at a CAGR of 21%, while Golf Rival has grown at a remarkable rate of 47%. During the same period, Golf Clash's downloads have declined at a CAGR of 39%, while Golf Rival's downloads have grown at a CAGR of 8%. Currently holding 28% revenue market share and with an RPD growth curve that closely mirrors Golf Clash's, Golf Rival has already surpassed Golf Clash in terms of downloads and is on track to potentially surpass it in revenue within the next two to three years.

Another noteworthy metric to consider is monthly active users (MAU). Since its acquisition in October 2021, Golf Rival has steadily increased its MAU metric and is now almost on par with Golf Clash. This could be attributed to the added value that Zynga's well-oiled UA and live-ops machine brought to the game.

MAU comparison, Source: data.ai

Upon analysis, we can observe that although Golf Rival may appear similar to Golf Clash in its core gameplay and many meta features, it still has notable differences. For instance, Golf Rival offers more matches without any fees, removing the session limit imposed by Golf Clash's wager-based system, which enhances player engagement. Additionally, Golf Rival boasts better graphics and is optimized to run seamlessly on low-end devices with faster load times.

When we take into account these improvements — coupled with Zynga's ability to implement a broader live-ops calendar than Golf Clash and their more experimental approach to UA creatives — it seems likely that Golf Rival could soon overtake Golf Clash as the top golf simulation game. 

In other words, we can conclude that Zynga's acquisition of Golf Rival was more successful than EA's acquisition of Golf Clash, not just because it was a more cost-effective deal, but also because of the value-added services like UA and live-ops that have allowed Golf Rival to compete head-to-head with Golf Clash for the No. 1 spot. Furthermore, the acquisition allowed Zynga to expand its reach in China via StarLark. 

Key Takeaways

Golf Clash is an exceptionally polished and captivating game that significantly disrupted its subgenre. It seized a unique opportunity to dominate the market share in Tier-1 countries and garnered developer Playdemic the attention of a major publisher willing to pay an astonishing amount for acquisition. However, the landscape shifted with the emergence of Golf Rival. Although Golf Clash remains the leading contender (for now), Playdemic must address its declining downloads and revenue to have a strong chance at maintaining its top position.

Suggestions for Golf Clash

  • EA has a long known history of shutting down games it acquires, as it’s done to titles from Glu Mobile, Industrial Toys, and Respawn Entertainment. The fact that both the Playdemic founders Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby left the company four months after acquisition is an indication of potential cultural clash. 
  • Golf Clash might not be getting the kind of support and services it may have expected from a developer with big resources. That in turn might curb its growth, and the studio may need to invest in building more in-house capability to meet future challenges.
  • Given EA’s conservative spend on UA, and faced by Zynga’s clearly more creative and assertive UA tactics, Golf Clash needs to think of alternative ways of driving quality downloads. Its recent partnerships with pro golf influencers like Rick Shiels seems like a step in the right direction, but time will tell how successful influencer marketing strategies will prove. Partnerships with real-world franchises like the PGA tour might be another way to drive UA (a strategy used often by Tennis Clash), while another option can be to copy Golf Rival’s UA creative strategy. 
  • Golf Clash borrowed robust meta systems from Clash Royale, but the market has moved on and genre mashing presents new opportunities for innovation. Playdemic should look at adding new meta features like crafting, blueprints/shards collection, and PvE boss duels to add more progression paths. A forge/crafting system can also help with inventory management, which is an increasingly evident problem as invested players are now managing hundreds of clubs. 
  • On the live-ops front, Playdemic has much room for improvement. Golf Clash’s current events and Tournaments system is very skewed towards highly engaged players, requiring strong PvP skills and deep pockets. This can discourage less skilled players from participating. More single-player events and quest systems with lower fees that set short-, mid-, and long-term goals can serve the needs of a wider player base.

With its current growth trajectory, Golf Rival appears on the path to overtake Golf Clash in revenue over the next few years. However, to the uninitiated, the game still carries the appearance of a shoddy clone of a more polished game. Golf Rival has built enough differentiation in its gameplay, live-ops, and UA strategy to attract and acquire the game’s lucrative audience, but it has kinks that need to be ironed out to match the high standards set by Golf Clash.

Suggestions for Golf Rival

  • During onboarding, the UI can feel a bit overwhelming as the player is bombarded with new features and onscreen buttons very early on. Streamlining this process so the player has fewer pop-up notifications and spends less waiting for content to download before jumping into an experience could help create a smoother first-time user experience. 
  • Even though the lower graphics fidelity and level of detail might be an asset when running the game on lower-end devices, in Tier-1 countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where more players are engaging with the game on newer iOS devices, having subpar visuals will make a product feel less premium, in turn affecting its perceived value and adoption by spend-heavy users.
  • Configurable high-quality graphics for premium smartphones can help Golf Rival bridge the quality gap and optimize for Tier-1 markets where revenue potential is higher. 
  • Golf Rival has some UI/UX issues worth addressing. For example, the sling shot reticle control is hard to read and doesn’t feel as seamless to use as in Golf Clash. Improving these UX issues will make the game easier to play and more accessible for a mature audience.
  • It’s relatively difficult to zoom/pinch and align the ball's trajectory with the hole when making distant shots unlike in Golf Clash. This can take the accuracy and fun away from long-distance shots in Golf Rival. Landing an Eagle or a Birdie is a powerful moment for the player in these games; subpar alignment system can spoil that. Improving the ball’s trajectory alignment UX for long-distance shots would greatly enhance the experience for more skilled players.
  • Golf Rival has an overt dependence on bots in both PvP and Tournament matches. This is evident from player reviews and comments from participating players who are often shocked by how easily high-ranking players mess up their shots in high stakes tournament play. Reducing reliance on bots can promote more competition integrity and player investment among the most engaged segment of the player base. 

Overall, the ongoing turf war between Golf Rival and Golf Clash illustrates how a near-perfect copy can successfully challenge and steal away market share from a market leader, even one with first mover advantage. This scenario has become commonplace in the mobile game industry, but it is usually quite difficult to displace entrenched incumbents that have a head start advantage and strong post-acquisition resources to thwart competitors.  

This duel also acts as a shining example of choosing the right merger or acquisition partner and how a strategic alliance can bring more value than just cash flow. A savvy deal can impact the future trajectory of both the acquired game, its studio, and the publisher as well. Ultimately, healthy competition fosters innovation and influences future developers to experiment with more excited and dynamic game design. As such, we’re excited to see how Golf Clash and Golf Rival progress from here. See you on the green!

A big thanks to Om Tandon for writing this essay! If Naavik can be of help as you build or fund games, please reach out.

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