First used to describe a sub-genre of core PC strategy games in the early 1990s, 4X games have been a staple of the mobile gaming scene ever since US developer MZ released Game of War: Fire Age back in 2013.
The success of that game, plus MZ’s 2015 follow up Mobile Strike (and the dozens of competitor titles that followed) meant it could be argued that 4X mobile games have become the ultimate evolution of the original definition, which derives from gameplay requirements to “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”.
And, in hindsight, that’s a surprise.
Match-3 games started out on PC – remember Bejeweled? – but the tactile and direct nature of touchscreen controls meant mobile devices were always going to be the best platform for such games, hence the success of Candy Crush Saga.
That just wasn’t the case for 4X games.
Instead, it was the deep metagame enabled by the free-to-play business model, combined with the always-on, always-with-you nature of mobile devices, and the game’s very strong community hooks that saw Game of War become one of the first mobile games to generate over $1 billion of revenue.
In this context, it’s worth noting that before it became a mobile game developer, MZ (then called Addmired) released dating apps and services. They weren’t successful but clearly influenced Game of War’s global chat system, which launched with real-time translation (crowdsourced by players).
This was matched by an alliance system players effectively had to join in order to make any substantial progress in the game. Alliance activity was further encouraged by offering ridiculously generous shared reward incentives for anyone spending.
Combined with a deep monetization design that famously enabled players to spend over $120,000 without running out of things to buy, Game of War hit the App Store as close to the finished article as any mobile game has. Certainly, it provided a template for all the 4X games that followed – and plenty did.
Competitors ranging from Plarium (Vikings) to Elex Wireless (Clash of Kings) and FunPlus (King of Avalon) found some level of success, but the difficulties making such complex and socially-driven games was underlined when more established mobile game companies such as Zynga and Scopely soft-launched their own 4X games – Scopely’s using the Breaking Bad licence – before withdrawing, deciding the genre was just too competitive.
More recently, despite its popular licence, Disruptor Beam’s The Walking Dead; March to War couldn’t find a sustainable market and the game will shut down on 31 January 2019.
Spend big to get bigger
Over the years, it’s become clear just how difficult it is to attract a large enough player base to support the demands required for a successful 4X mobile title.
Once again, MZ wrote the playbook when it came to user acquisition, spending millions of dollars to create movie-style ads featuring stars ranging from Kate Upton to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mariah Carey. And then it spent hundreds of millions of dollars annually both in terms of in-game advertising, but more significantly, for high profile TV advertising during events such as the Superbowl. During 2015 and 2016, MZ was the biggest game advertiser in the US.
Yet the drag of such spending in terms of profit margins became clear when MZ launched the Square-Enix-licensed Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire in mid-2017.
In order to support the launch, it switched off all marketing for Game of War and Mobile Strike, with the result they immediately plummeted out of the top downloads app store charts, also dropping out of the US top 50 top grossing rankings. Both games now sit around the top 100 mark, a far cry from their days in the global top five.
Final Fantasy XV has been another success for MZ though. Although not supported as strongly in terms of ad spend as its predecessors, it remains a top 20 grossing game in the US. In that context, it’s probably a more profitable game.
What happens next?
The switch to licences also highlights a key trend across the wider mobile game market that’s impacted 4X games. Initially, these game were so different and engaging to a certain audience of mainly young men that as long as companies had a lot of marketing money, licences didn’t really matter.
However, as the sector matured, licences have become a way of making marketing more efficient and targeted. It wasn’t always enough as seen by the failures of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad 4X games, though.
And this is the sector’s biggest challenge; can 4X games continue to be as focused on their very deep alliance-oriented metagame for engagement and monetization or will they have to become less obsessional and UA-targeted to find a lower ARPU but larger audience?
As is often the case, Asian developers remain convinced that deep grinding mechanics are the most important element. In that context, it will be fascinating to see how the Call of Duty tie-in between Elex and Activision will position itself.
Western developers, however, are going lighter; bringing more character and storyline into place and dialling back overt monetization. A great example of this approach is the forthcoming Star Trek: Fleet Command from Scopely. No doubt learning from the Breaking Bad experience, the game softens its 4X foundations with much more accessible gameplay, and – of course – a strong focus on Star Trek characters and lore.
And with many 4X mobile games in development, it seems there’s still plenty of life in one of mobile gaming’s most surprising successes.