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The end of the mobile games gold rush, RIP Tactical Heroes

Originally published on alexisbonte.com. I tell the story of why we failed with Tactical Heroes a multiplayer TBS game for iPad and iPhone. I also explain why the mobile games gold rush is over & cover the differences between both main App Stores.

Last week, we decided to pull down our first mobile game Tactical Heroes from the Apple App Store. Tactical Heroes is dead, may it rest in peace.

Although painful, it was an easy decision. The game that we launched on October 16 of 2014, simply never reached the necessary size and community engagement to thrive.

Being the first mobile game we got to launch (we cancelled 3 games that we never launched before it) after our initial success with eRepublik.com we had high hopes for Tactical Heroes.

Tactical Heroes was also on paper the type of game that should have made it. It came from our love of Turn Based Tactical games and our perception of a gap in the mobile games market and we did what felt like a lot of right moves.

  • XCOM is one of my all time favorite games and was a big inspiration for Tactical Heroes the same way Civilization was and is an inspiration for eRepublik.com.
  • We acquired a company “Alien Flow” with a small but experienced team in mobile to complement our team (that had browser games experience) and to work on the game.
  • Clash of Clans asynchronous battle gameplay showed a way where you could have a good multiplayer game loop and apply it (we thought) to a different battle gameplay.
  • We were doing something original and new yet familiar by associating XCOM type turn based tactical combat to the Clash of Clans Base Building and defending loop.
  • Quite a few of us really enjoyed playing Clash of Clans but felt the AI based battles lacked depth and were too simplistic
  • Tablets were all the craze and we designed the game for Tablet first, with 3d graphics and focused on Apple where most of the App Store revenue was.

How little did we know!

I still think that we got a few things right and the fact that we had close to 500.000 people try the game and an average review rate of 4.3/5 from thousands of reviewers (better than XCOM’s mobile version) is a testament to that. I want to take this occasion to thank all the people who played and tried our game, some daily for months. But we got two key things wrong and that is more than enough to kill a game on mobile.

  • We failed at the max 3 minutes of undivided attention rule by going for a flawed concept for mobile, one of the great things about turn based tactics that fans enjoy vs real time strategy is that you can think during your turn, plan your next move. This works fine for a PC premium game, it just doesn’t work for a mobile free to play game especially if it’s multiplayer. During the design phase and afterwards we were always struggling with how long the battles where vs how much time you had to plan your move. The result was a 10 minute battle time that, although it allowed us to keep some of the essence of tactical turn based games (no twitch gaming) was just way too long. There is a reason Clash of Clans battles are 3 minutes and most successful free to play games have very short play times. On mobile you just don’t want a game that requires more than a few minutes attention, seconds if you are talking full attention, it’s just too easy to get interrupted. In addition in free to play, you need to have players go through the core loop as many times as possible to monetize and retain them. Many great games have failed or not done as well as predicted due to having too long a core loop.Vainglory, a great game and perhaps the most supported game in Apple history in terms of featuring has had some success with its eSports strategy and I would never bet against Kristian Segerstrale but I’m sure they were hoping to be higher in the grossing charts. Their battles are just too long. Even Blizzard’s Hearthstone, a great game by all means, is suffering from the fact that pvp battles are usually 15 to 20 minutes. The game is doing well but it just took Supercell’s Clash Royale a few days after launch not only to overtake Hearthstone but to claim the top grossing spot. Yes Clash Royale is not just a great simplification of a card game, it’s a wonderfully polished jewel. But most importantly all its PvP battles are just 3 minutes long (4 minutes with overtime).
  • Tablet first and Loading times. At the time we were developing Tactical Heroes we underestimated just how going for 3D graphics and focusing on Tablets first would hurt us. Going for 3D meant that the game looked great, we had good launch support from Apple (we were featured in best new games almost worldwide for what was our first game) but for various reasons we didn’t get our loading times right. In certain cases depending on your device it could take over 30 seconds to load the game or get to and from a battle. Fine on PC, a death sentence for retention on Mobile. The game worked fine on iPhones but it was definitely better on iPad and iPads, were, and still are, just 30% of the market revenues wise.

Should we have made the game premium then? I don’t think so, XCOM already has a good mobile version and even with its brand power and following, it hasn’t really set the world on fire in terms of downloads and revenues. Rodeo Games whose games like Hunters and Hunters 2 we loved, made little revenues, perhaps enough for a very small indie and they have had to discontinue further development on Warhammer 40k other than adapting it to new platforms for now. Premium except for a very few exceptions (Monument ValleyMinecraft) is not a great business model for Mobile. No matter how much Apple Editors are inclined to support it over free to play.

Will someone ever manage to do a successful free to play turn based tactics game on mobile? A larger company than us has tried as well more recently. Game Insight’s X-Mercs with a lot more marketing than Tactical Heroes and clearly more budget and time to develop it according to App Annie hasn’t fared any better. So no, I don’t think XCOM like turn based mechanics will make for a successful free to play mobile multiplayer game. On the other hand there are many different types of turn based tactics and we have seen a few games innovate on the genre and find some success likeScore Hero from First Touch games or the Walking Dead from Scopely. But they all have much shorter “battle” times, focus on single player first and quite honestly don’t come close to the satisfaction I get playing XCOM 2 now on a PC (Yes I still love TBS).

So was Tactical Heroes a waste of time and money? Honestly it would have been if we hadn’t had the luck of having a strong existing game with eRepublik.com that gave us the financial legs to take the learnings and try again. We know exactly what mistakes we made with Tactical Heroes (and other failed projects) and we made sure we would not repeat them with our following major mobile release Age of Lords. Age of Lords has found major success in particular on Google Play. In a way its the closest game we have made in terms of gameplay to our original game eRepublik.com (which after 8 years is still going strong thanks to an incredibly dedicated community and team), its also a game where we took less risks. We were a lot more humble and followed proven mobile game loops. Now that the game has had over1.6 million downloads, earned us a top developer badge from Google Playand 11 months after launch is growing mostly organically 10 to 20% month on month, we can build on it and add some more innovating touches. It also means we now have a strong mobile game DNA made of failures and success in the company. So yes it was worth it but we were fortunate that we were in a position that we could plan ahead that such a failure might happen and set aside sufficient funds to have another go.

I think that finding success in mobile games was harder than ever in 2015 and now there is a clear oversupply of games, too many developers and too many games coming out (about 3000 per week according to this gamasutra post). Game discovery is broken and smaller developers are over reliant on App Store featuring that in Apple’s case focuses on either:

  • Small game editor / game press pleasing indies. We know, our most featured game was Twin Shooter Invaders a game we knew would be game critic friendly. The problem is that in many cases this type of game has little chance of making significant long lasting revenues. Still the Apple App Store does still give a shooting chance for some who manage to hit the right balance of games that are both critic friendly and have great KPIs.
  • Games from big or large VC backed studios that have had previous major success preferably on Apple App Store and can demonstrate large launch marketing budgets and ideally make Apple devices look good by using their latest features like 3D touch or having 3d Graphics (not necessarily a recipe for a great or profitable game).
  • Games with a big brand IP (not easy for a small or mid-size studio)

Apple’s priority is more about making its devices look great than in the actual game revenues. This makes sense short term (dangerous long term?) but it’s a very hard one for newcomers and mid size developers. On the other hand it does mean that you do regularly see indie games get great distribution from time to time. A nice touch but not a recipe for developer success, for every Crossy Road exception, I know many Indie games that have had worldwide Apple featuring and hardly get 10.000 $ of revenues overall, not enough even for a 2 person indie team to get by. Let’s not even mention all the other ones that don’t get noticed and end up with virtually no revenue.

I think that there is a more even playing field on Google Play. Google does look closer at game KPIs and seem to better understand or care about what types of games really work retention and profitability wise on mobile. Just like Apple, they still favor the big studio and big IP games and try to support the smaller indies but they also do a better job at identifying and supporting small and mid size studios with strong games that can become larger studios. We experienced this first hand with our game Age of Lords that has had strong and repeated support from Google Play due to its great KPIs and managed to be one of the top 100 grossing games in 25 countries (95 countries in the Strategy games category) on the platform. On the other hand of all our games it’s the one that had the least support from Apple (for the moment, we are optimists here).

So the mobile Gold rush is over , but I do think that for a team with “grit”, experience and decent recurring revenues from existing games this a great time to be developing mobile games. The mobile games market is expected to continue to grow by 15% per year for the foreseeable future. The number of mobile games developers is going to decrease as many will close or move on, there is going to be more consolidation in the sector and VC’s have now moved to the next trends / Gold Rush of virtual reality, augmented reality and eSports. This, added to the growing influence of YouTubers means I think there will be more space on the acquisition side. Developers will have to fund themselves from existing game profits rather than VC money and there will be less but higher quality game releases. This will be good for players and for discovery as well. The fact that the gold rush is over only means that it will be harder for newcomers or amateurs to strike gold but I do think it will actually open a window of opportunity for experienced self funded mid size developers that have the grit to push on.

Would I prefer to be in Supercell’s position, definitely, but they also had to have a lot of grit to get where they are, an important part of that team has been doing games together, failing and succeeding since way before they even started in Supercell. This is one of the key reasons behind their success.

So yes I’m sad we killed Tactical Heroes last week, but thankful every day for our long lasting success with eRepublik.com (in spite of several ups and downs) and growing success with Age of Lords. But above all I am grateful for the fact that the best people in our team have stuck together and demonstrated that we at eRepublik Labs together have the “grit” to seize this opportunity we now have to build on our failures and successes and become a great games studio.

Alexis Bonte is the co-founder and CEO of eRepublik Labs, a games studio that believes in grit and in inspiring it in games you can play for years with friends on any device. More than 6 million players worldwide have enjoyed its first game eRepublik.com and 1,6 million have already tried the recently launched Age of Lords.

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