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Arena of Valor — true MOBA on mobile phones

Arena of Valor is the best mobile game of 2017. It is really polished, smooth, posh, and immersing game with intuitive controls.

Honor of Kings, Strike of the Kings, Realm of Valor and Kings of Glory. It his is the list of the names of this MOBA by Tencent, which were used before the official release for Europe as Arena of Valor in August 2017. Starting from November 2015 the game was available only in China. There are two more interesting facts about the game.


1) Honor of Kings was the top-grossing mobile game in the world in May 2017.

2) Tencent is the owner of the most popular MOBA for PC, League of Legends. These days we can see a harmony in the top charts of the top-grossing games. League of Legends takes the leading place in the PC chart, while Honor of Kings (Arena of Valor) is on the top of the mobile chart. We can easily call  Honor of Kings a perfect mobile reincarnation of LoL.

But why did MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games become the top-grossing games? Such games are fascinating, competitive, and dependent on the skills of the player. In other words, they offer all the essential qualities of the favorite sport. When developers of Clash Royale implemented Touchdown mode, where battles happen on the field for American Football, I realized that the football field was the foundation for the majority of the most popular video games.

The idea of the sport is to control the territory and combat. All competitions are the sporting equivalent of the typical ancient tactical operation, i.e., get from Castle A to Castle B using the most unpredicted way for your enemy to capture it. All the famous MOBAs partly involve this ‘Back to Basics’ model. The knights, archers, and wizards are playing on the field instead of athletes with the ball.

Now we have to understand the meaning of MOBA in this context. A MOBA is any real time PvP team game. For example, World of Tanks or Clash Royale. More particularly, and in this article, a MOBA is a game that is similar to DOTA or League of Legends. It has a fantasy setting, a squared map with bases located on the diagonals and three lines, jungles, a 5x5 team, waves of minions, and the process of hero upgrading carried out right on the battlefield. These days the name of the best mobile version of the League of Legends is still not taken, and this fight is going to be hard.

Revenues of the main MOBA-games in the market during the last years

Today there are only five big MOBA projects, which show proper financial results exceeding the level of statistical discrepancy. Let’s look at the global revenue distribution between them in November 2017.


Honour of Kings/Arena of Valor 2015 by Tencent (Shenzhen) — 71,4%

Mobile Legends: Bang Bang 2016 by Moonton (Shanghai) — 21,2%

Heroes Evolved 2017 by R2Games (Shenzhen) — 4%

Vainglory 2014 by Super Evil Megacorp (San Mateo, California) — 2,2%

Heroes of Order & Chaos 2014 by Gameloft (Paris) — 1,2%

If we look only at the MOBA USA market, the MOBA will show the following results before the release of Arena of Valor: MLBB — 66,9%; Vainglory — 21,1%; HE — 7,9%; HOC — 4,1%. Just a year ago Vainglory and HOC shared the MOBA USA market having 83% and 17% respectively.

Such Chinese developers as Moonton and R2Games became successful only as a result of the high popularity of Honour of Kings in China. It’s straightforward to use a similar game to attract the interest of the user when the original game attracts more than 50 million players on a daily basis.

I want to keep my attention on the thorough description of Arena of Valor, but I think that it won’t be complete without a short comparison with the main competitors in the frames of the user experience. I decided to avoid Mobile Legends and Heroes of Order and Chaos. These games offer the very same mechanics, allowing us to judge only their look and appearance, but look not so good in comparison with Arena of ValorVainglory has a great and well-known game engine. Pixelation can be only vi when playing on iPad Pro. Last three years I tried to play Vainglory a lot of times, but I always ended up playing PC League of Legend. The thing is that the mobile MOBA with point-n-click mouse imitation controls had nothing to offer against the PC version.

Heroes Evolved offers the best graphics. This game is quite similar to Heroes of the Storm. Heroes Evolved is significantly westernized and contains a flock of Greek gods and mythological creatures. Chinese origin of the game can be noticed only in omnipresent Lu BuSung Wukong, and Cao Cao. Of course, the existence of such a hero as Bruce Lee just calls us to try him in the real battle. If there were no Arena of Valor, this game would be the honored leader.


When I started to play Arena of Valor, it already had a halo of a super popular game. I read a lot of news about the incredible popularity of the game in China. I also read that developers limited the daily in-game time for the users of less than 18 years old because state newspapers in China compared the game with drugs.

Before playing the game, I was waiting for something genuinely Asian, picturesque, shiny, attracting and immersing, that tries to get access to your wallet right away.

We can see statements about the gameplay, monetization and long-term goals in the promo content of Arena of Valor

The thing is that Arena of Valor doesn’t look like stereotype Asian game. There was even no popup window with the beginner’s monetization set, so I had to find it on my own) Arena of Valor is polished, smooth, posh, and immersing game with intuitive controls. There are five primary statements offered in the app store video of AoV:


1) True 5x5 MOBA

2) Weekly free hero rotation

3) Team up with friends

4) 3 battle lines

5) Quick battle time

Let’s look at the implementation of these themes in the game.

GAMEPLAY

True 5x5 MOBA with three battle lines and quick battle time

The store video is the central place to contact and attract the potential audience of the game. The idea is to give the maximum amount of information in a condensed form. Three of five slots of AoV is taken from the gameplay description. Two other are used for the very same idea: True 5x5 MOBA with three battle lines.

What are the main advantages of 5x5 battle in comparison with 3x3 one? The main advantage is that the consequences of the primary MOBA problem are less dangerous. I’m talking about the leavers. If one of three players leaves the game, the final result becomes apparent. At the same time, if one of five players leaves the game, the team can save the battle by using proper skills.

The main disadvantage of 5x5 battles is a time. One fight lasts for 25 minutes. The idea was that the mobile game couldn’t offer such long gaming sessions. That’s why Vainglory provided 3x3 battles during the release in 2014. Arena of Valor wants gamers to play in the 5x5 mode right from the beginning. The very first unskippable click of the player after completing the tutorial is a 5x5 battle.


I don’t want to say that something happened in the world of mobile player experience and gamers started to like long gaming sessions. No doubt, young players consider their smartphone as the main device for games, having more time to play it. However, the middle-aged people have a tendency to allocate a significant amount of time for mobile games, instead of making a short sessions. However, my opinion is that such approach works only with popular and legendary games, which can attract all the attention of the player.

Tencent managed to make a legendary game. It has the same level of popularity as its League of Legends for PC. I think that the main advantage of LoL is the longstanding hero abilities balance system. They also managed to transfer this system to AoV, and it works only for the 5x5 mode. That’s why the original pattern for the new game was more than evident.

During the process of the battle initialization, the players can evaluate their chances to win. The sign on the upper left part of the portrait shows the level of experience of the user with the current hero.

After putting ten players in the arena, we have to face the central conflict of the game design. I’m talking about the time rush. Players have to get enough impression and experience to be satisfied with the game. The game has to take an amount of time, which is not redundant or excessive. Game designers have a bunch of tools to make the battle as fast as they want. They can speed up the time like in Clash Royale. They can also use the life counter and its elimination when the card deck is over, like in Hearthstone. They can use a time limit, like in World of Tanks. The main problem of such tools implementation in the case with Arena of Valor is that the game is marketed as true MOBA, while the most popular tools and instruments will kill all right features of MOBA.


The DNA of all real fantasy MOBAs represents role-playing games. A group of adventurers is going to the catacombs, fighting with monsters and other heroes, upgrading their characters and getting new and modern munitions and outfits. There’s no place for rush in the role game. The full cycle of hero upgrade to the maximum level takes up to 20–30 hours.

In the case of MOBA, it is a super concentrated experience lasts for just 25 minutes. You need to achieve each of 15 levels, getting used to new features, understanding their limitations, and getting the motivation to reach the next level with your hard work. The same principle works for the munitions. You need to test new items, and you need to have enough time to create motivation. Such things can’t happen in 6 or 7 minutes.

When Arena of Valor declares the Quick battle time, it doesn’t mean that the time is limited manually. The battle is full of events and activities, which speed up the time. You can’t just put players in the sandbox and wait. The game has to move towards the final battle, keeping the leading role of the players. The primary tool that is used to speed up the time in Arena of Valor is the increase of the game mistake value.

The first minutes of the battle. Heroes are allocated along the lines

Mistakes have the minimum value at the beginning of the game. The mightiest bosses on the battlefield are towers that prevent the player from getting deeper into the territory of the enemy. Players kill the weakest minions, hiding under the tower coverage. The majority of players dies when they had no time to reach their tower, or in the case when they were lured to a tower of the enemy. The assassinated hero respawns in 10–15 seconds, having enough time to protect the tower.

One tower of the enemy is destroyed. Everything is pretty good, even though we have two junglers in the team.

The warm-up is over on the 4th minute of the game. Heroes gains their ultimate skills. Now they can attack enemies even under the protection of their towers. The tower loss is not essential at this stage because players are attracted to the additional tower in the broad areas of the enemy’s territory. As a result, they become victims of so-called finishers. And it hurts at this stage, because your enemies develop, while you have to wait until the respawn.

The forecast is poor. We’ve lost towers on the bottom and in the middle, while the team gives a feed to the enemy

Right in the middle of the game minions increase their power, merely destroying towers if one forgets to keep an eye on them. Players are still able to perform individual actions because there’s a lot of things to do. You need to deal with the minion waves from the upper and lower lines. You need to protect the center. You have to form special squads to kill overexcited heroes of the enemy. The most significant mistake is to accumulate the power when it’s too early. Heroes are still too weak to pass through the defense lines in the center, while the enemy will be able to destroy the side towers.

We don’t have towers. Now we need to be extremely careful and avoid wandering along too far from the base

The game is slowly moving to the end. Heroes have their maximum level. You need to stay together and prevent easy deaths of teammates at this time. The hero needs 40 seconds to respawn, and this time is enough to make virtually everything. Wrongly picked heroes will show themselves at this stage. You need to create a great mix with a tank, a warrior, a wizard, and support.


The length of an average Arena of Valor battle is 15–20 minutes. In order to make the entire process faster, and avoid ‘artificial speeding up effect’, Arena of Valor eventually increases the value of mistakes. This feature is achieved with two methods: changing the area layout after destroying the towers and increasing the respawn time. The players are able to control the situation in the game in both cases. Players destroy the towers, and players give the feed to the enemy, by putting themselves under attack.

As a result, the game becomes full of action, events, stories, mistake, and plans, moving the time factor to the background. The losing player has enough time to think about errors and find a way to solve them. The easiest way is to reach out friends, and play the next round without a hitch.

The panel of friends is also shown on the match creation page

Leavers are one of the most significant problems of MOBA. The player who leaves the battle ruins all the plans for other four players. Arena of Valor deals with leavers extremely efficient. One leave equals to 5 reputation points out of 100, and the player stops getting bonus gold on a daily basis. Several leaves in a row, and the player won’t be able to participate in ranking battles. One standard match will restore just one reputation point.

Heroes

Heroes are the central part of every MOBA game. In fact, a hero is the only one game object that allows monetization. At the same time, one hero can’t be more powerful than other. Players will keep playing the game only if they are sure that everything that happens in the arena is the result of player’s skills and not a consequence of imbalanced hero parameters. Now imagine that there are 50 heroes, and the majority of them has to have specific and unique fighting skills and abilities. It’s hard to imagine a task for game designers that would be more complex.

All the heroes in Arena of Valor have to be balanced to show equal performance in the battle

A hero can attack, a passive ability, two general abilities (each has six levels), and one ultimate ability with three levels of power. Skills have different levels of damage: physical and magical. Abilities can add various buff and debuff add-ons to the damage, having multiple radiuses and directions. Several skills may work with a specific area, individual targets or several heroes. Heroes have hit, armor and defense points. All the parameters may be adjusted with 25 different types of the outfit and items.

The player is also able to increase the power of the hero by creating a combination of 54 arcanas. The player has to distribute them among 30 slots and choose one of 15 talents. Now it’s obvious why developers of Arena of Valor decided to take this system from League of Legends, saving nine years of development time. They got a big-time advantage in comparison with new developers. However, they use fresh and different heroes in the game.

‘Hero Finder’ menu can be used to find a hero that corresponds to your gaming style

But how can a player understand this? Which hero is the best one? The game offers an incredibly easy system to find an appropriate hero for you. There’s ‘suggestion’ tab in ‘Heroes’ section, where the player is offered to choose melee or ranged heroes. The game offer heroes that align with chosen style of the game. For example, melee high burst damage style offers Butterfly, Nakroth, Batman, Murad, and Kriknak. This system is more obvious and understandable for the player than classes and roles. The majority of heroes has two classes and up to two roles. E.g. Batman is included in the ‘Assassin/Warrior’ class with the ‘Mobility/Finisher’ role.

UX & Art Style

Arena of Valor is a visually perfect and attractive game. Just a window with the hero parameters, where the chosen hero is performing a battle dance, moves the game to the world that is simply unreachable by the competitors. Arena of Valor has a lot of things to create WOW-effect. At the very same time, the game reached the release stage having all the MOBA features proven to be efficient. As a result, the game has a redundant interface, and it’s straightforward to get lost there.

Arena of Valor is already mature and has all required features. That’s why the interface is slightly redundant

The game was fighting with the interface until the last moment. There are many finessing and copier solutions. As a result, we have a central area with clickable windows of the main game modes, surrounded by a lot of buttons from four sides. By clicking virtually any of them, the user will be redirected to another window with the myriads of buttons.

I like several UI solutions. The game has no ‘rude’ shop offers on the main screen. One can enter the store by clicking a small animated button in the upper left corner. At the very same time, the game provides big and clickable windows for the main game modes: Casual Match and Ranked Match animated with the main offers from the shop. The player can see new offers, without dealing with pop-ups or by making unnecessary clicks in the store.


The social panel with the information about the friends is represented by a sliding panel on the right side. It appears only when it’s necessary, e.g. before the beginning of the match in order to invite friends with one click.

Hero panel interface is also a great feature of the game. Sometimes the player has to list all 49 heroes to find something interesting, and it’s really hard to understand real parameters. The interface offers an element with four sliders that shows all the settings of the hero with the gradation from 1 to 10. Constitution shows if it’s easy to kill a hero in the battle. The player who considers this parameter important can see the list of exciting heroes. This element also offers Attack Damage and Ability Damage, while are more interesting for the advanced players.

The difficulty is also an interesting parameter. In fact, it divides all the heroes into two groups: easy to learn and hard to master. The most potent and exciting abilities of heroes are balanced with the fact that the player has to use precise aiming or keep specific timing in mind. Hero with low difficulty can be used in the button mashing style, but the player won’t get a lot of benefits from mastering after participating in many battles. At the beginning of the game, the player received free heroes of low difficulty.

he hero profile interface is the most attractive part of the game

No doubt, the game has detailed information with the numeric values of the skills. This information is hidden too thick, and it’s not obligatory for decision making. Every hero (even if you haven’t purchased it) can be tested in a rapid battle with bots to evaluate skills and abilities. Another big problem of MOBA is to understand who killed you and when. When a hero is waiting for the respawn, the player can check an informative panel with the detailed information about the damage received.

This game is strict with the mistakes of the player. ‘Armory’ menu where the user can choose the upgrading scenarios, offers Pro Builds feature, making it possible to choose the method that will lead to the highest number of victories. ‘Arcana’ menu offers the best upgrades for a specific character.

The one can easily see Cel-shaded heroes in comparison with the usual 3D-renders

The problem of heroes’ identification during the battle is solved elegantly. All the heroes are made with the сel shading technology. This system offers an imitation of the hand drawing of heroes’ faces. I liked it. This technology was used in XIII game and Walking Dead Series by Telltale Games. In the majority of cases, AAA-games have to be photorealistic. Cel-shading technology implemented in Arena of Valor makes it possible to identify the heroes throughout the game and quickly distinguish them from rendered 3D-monsters or minions.

SOCIAL + RETENTION

Team up with friends

The main goal of a MOBA-player is to create a team of friends, perform several attacks and kill all the enemies. There’s no need to upgrade the heroes or create a collection of them. Upgrading to a specific level is not important, and is used only to create goals at the beginning of the game. That’s why Arena of Valor implements the social interaction significance growth model to keep the players in the game. Everything starts with a squad for a couple of battles and leads to a cybersport team.

The Tutorial and Onboarding

The primary goal of the tutorial in Arena of Valor is to show that the controls are more than simple and that the player can immerse into the real 5x5 MOBA. During the first part of the tutorial the player has to learn how to move using the virtual controller on the 1x1 map, as well as how to determine abilities and buy equipment. Later it shows one awkward moment that can be difficult for new players. I’m talking about the attack on the tower. The player has to allow minions attack the tower and go after them.

The second part of the tutorial is a 5x5 battle with bots. Bots are easy to kill. Thus the player gets a fantastic impression about the game. After this match, you will receive your second hero - Arthur in addition to Valchein who was given earlier. These are the most convenient and easy to control heroes of two different types: melee and ranged.

14 free heroes during the first two weeks. What a bold decision for a game that earns money by selling heroes

A road to Glory is the very first big onboarding event. The player can get up to 14 heroes for free (one per day) by participating in 3 battles on a daily basis. This offer is incredibly generous and provides players with significant experience and emotions. Every day you are to test your brand new hero. It looks like a honeymoon period in your relations with the game. The player also gets new account levels, as well as gold and gems as bonuses on a daily basis.

Core Loop

After completing the Road to Glory the player will have access to daily quests, and the game will enter its standard cycle. To complete all daily quests, the player has to participate in 6 battles per day. It brings something around 2000 of gold, which is the soft in-game currency. 2000 can be used to purchase one arcana of the 3rd level. Arcanas can improve the overall performance of the hero. Thus they considered the main item to buy with gold. The player can have two sets of arcanas with 30 pieces in each. Therefore, the player needs about two months just to fill all the slots.

The game offers an exclusive award for the first six battles per day

If the player buys heroes, the mentioned term will be added with a week for each new hero. I don’t think that players would ever want to have all the heroes in the game. That’s why Tencent has to consider where to use the soft currency in 3–4 months after the beginning of the game. Players are paying a lot of attention to the process of Gems earning. Gems are another in-game currency.

By using Gems, one can participate in the Gacha-type Lucky Draw lottery. One week of playing is enough to gain Gems for one lottery ticket. The player can buy participation in the lottery with the hard currency (vouchers). It’s worth $1. To get premium hero Airi, one has to participate in Gacha for 200 times. In my opinion, the lifecycle for getting such reward is too long (4 years). Probably, we will see new events or game modes, which will support Gold to Gem conversion.

Long-Term Goals

The long-term goals of the player of Arena of Valor are to move up along the leagues. By completing various tasks and achieving new leagues, the player will earn unique skins for the heroes. It is the most valuable reward for a MOBA player. Every victory moves the player closer to the higher leagues, while each fail drives back. Eventually, the player will reach a league, where a regular solo participation in a random team will result in more failures than victories. To move forward, the user has to invite his friends into the squad of 2–3 players or even create a new team.

In the ranking battle menu, one can see the next goal for new players, i.e., to reach the platinum league

The social interaction works perfectly and praises team games in Arena of Valor. After connecting to a Facebook account, the player will see the list of friends and their name. All the users are listed according to the rating in their leagues. The rating can be seen from the drop-down panel on the right side, as well as during the game initialization process. The system offers the minimum number of actions to interact with friends. One can send some gold, and also receive it in return. Friends can be added right to the battle result page by choosing the most efficient players.

The main feature of the rating is to motivate the player to move to the top of it, keeping the place in the highest league. You want to win and move on when you see that you are still in the silver league, while your colleague has already reached the platinum one. And to win, you have to create a team. The game offers guilds, but I think that they are less efficient than the rating.

The first big European tournament for Arena of Valor

Another long-term goal is the cybersport. China has already launched the cybersport league for Honour of Kings. The first European offline championship took place in Stockholm at the end of 2017. The prize fund is $100,000. These days several competitions are carried out by ESL cybersport provider. Cups are carried out on a weekly basis with the prize fund of 700 Euro. Each month 16 best teams participate in the final, fighting for 2250 Euro. This event is broadcasted on air. It seems that the aspect of cybersport will take a significant place in Arena of Valor as an efficient method of player retaining.

MONETIZATION

Free weekly hero rotation

The classic MOBA game offers two principal monetization objects: heroes and skins. Skins do not affect the overall performance of the hero. Thus it’s possible to use them as a source of money only by analyzing the current demand. The average skin price in Arena of Valor is around $6–11. There are premium skins, which can change the effects of movement or ability usage during the battle. To upgrade Butterfly’s skin to the 5th level, the player needs more than $200. Thus, if someone wants to be unique, and is ready to spend some money, the game will offer such opportunity.

The most expensive skin in the game (end of 2017) — Butterfly Technoblade

As in the case of skins, paid heroes are sold using different models. For example, the price of Batman is fixed — $18. Maloch and Airi can be found only in the Gacha-type lottery Lucky Draw. One can participate in the lottery by using the hard in-game currency (vouchers). There’s an option to pay for the participation with gems, but their number is severely limited. The lottery brings gold, gems, and arcanas in the majority of cases. Sometimes you can get unique skins or freemium heroes. If you are lucky enough, you can even get an exclusive pendant, which can be changed to Airi when this hero is obtainable. Maloch appears in the lottery for a limited period.


The lottery offers a special participation counter. As they say, the higher is the number, the higher are chances to get the pendant. When you reach the maximum number, the chances to get the pendant become 100%. Based on experience of players discovered that the maximum number is 200. One attempt is worth $1.

Paid heroes in MOBA are an ultimately risky solution. If there’s a mighty hero who can’t be bought for the soft currency, and such hero will have the overwhelming number of victories, making it obligatory to use this hero in leagues and cybersport, the players will have a lot of bad experience. The primary asset of MOBA is the trust of players. Such trust can be lost when the player starts to blame not personal or team skills, but a paid feature.

Currently, Arena of Valor can keep the balance. There were only three heroes with a paywall at the end 2017: Batman, Maloch, and Airi. Players prefer using Murad as a jungler in tournaments instead of Batman or Airi. Top and bottom lines are usually taken by Lu Bu and Zaka, and not by Maloch. The majority of heroes can be obtained for free or by using the soft in-game currency. Every week new players get six new heroes on a temporary basis. The generousness of the game is more than obvious. Thus there are no real complaints about the paid heroes in reviews.

SUMMARY

The overwhelming success of Chinese game Arena of Valor that represents a particular genre of MOBA in western markets is a reason to change the prejudice about Chinese games. For example, it’s impossible to implement the successful Pay-to-Win monetizing model in MOBA, because even the slightest imbalance between the teams will ruin the user experience. It was told that China publishers are not able to make Free-to-Win games because their audience wouldn’t understand them. It turns out that the audience understands, and ready to pay for the content, even if there’s no “Pay to Win” button.

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