The Success of Multi-Billion Dollar Free-to-Play Games Isn’t Culture

When we talk in my social and business circles about a game being successful in a certain country but not elsewhere, often I hear “it’s a culture thing” along with some of the following responses:

“Monster Strike is a very Japanese game and fits the Japanese culture”

“Honor of Kings is so successful because of China’s mobile first culture”

It’s not wrong to see the social outcomes of these mega-hits after they are billion dollar titles. What most see — the game becoming mainstream and being part of culture — is the fruit. But when you start digging and learn about each game’s humble beginnings, we begin to see the root.

It wasn’t culture that made it a billion dollar hit phenomenon in less than ~2 years time, it was social techniques and a key technology of that game’s era.

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2012 — Candy Crush

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Candy Crush gameplay

In 2012, Candy Crush launches during a time when 3G was the standard and 4G was being developed. Many tile-matching puzzle games existed like Bejeweled.

What set Candy Crush apart was how they mastered viral, addictive techniques in mobile games, they merged virality with mobile. Integrating with FB was key to promote game’s viral player adoption. When players progress in Candy Crush, the game will post FB updates on their behalf, compare player’s FB friends on a level map using their pictures, players can ask for lives from their friends, and allowed friends to brag when you’ve beaten their high score — such social pressure worked.

Another important factor to Candy Crush Saga’s success was cross-platform gameplay. King kept the game near identical across all platforms, with a similar map screen, leaderboard, UI and more as well as letting the player carry their game progress across all platforms.

Facebook was the prevalent technology platform of 2012 — that year it welcomed its one billionth user (600M of which were mobile users). It took Candy Crush less than 5 months to become a hit. Five years after it launched on mobile Candy Crush was downloaded 2.7B+ times.

A single player puzzle game making billions.

2013 — Monster Strike

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Monster Strike gameplay

Mixi is the maker of Monster Strike, the top overall grossing mobile game for 2015 and 2016 per Sensor Tower Store Intelligence.

Before Monster Strike, Mixi was Japan’s top social network until Facebook and other competitors like Twitter, LINE, etc. decimated Mixi. Their social network went from being the ninth most visited website in Japan to 13,406th. In 2013, Mixi went from being valued at $3 billion in late 2007 to being worth only 5% of it’s peak value in 2008.

Then a miracle happened — Mixi launched MonsterStrike in September 2013 and without any kind of special mass-marketing to speak of, it kept climbing up the App store ranks and the rest is history.

Many people look at Monster Strike’s pinball-style gameplay and say “oh it’s culture to why it’s so successful in Japan.” But that’s seeing the fruit and not the root. Arcade centers with pinball-type games were popular in many countries, not just Japan.

It’s really about how Monster Strike created a social movement leveraging a technology known as bluetooth. Bluetooth allowed for addictive local cooperative multiplayer — combined with Japan’s dense population centers, it allowed people to easily meet up and play together. It spread like WILDFIRE.

In 2013, 4G was just launching in Japan and it had not become mass market until late 2014–2015 — so socially addictive bluetooth multiplayer experiences really struck a chord. Monster Strike defied all odds as a mobile game because Japan was the home of Nintendo and Playstation — the console kings.

It took them less than 6 months to become a hit. In 2015 Monster Strike was bringing in $4.2M+ per day — mostly from one country, Japan.

A multiplayer PvE game making billions.

2015 — Honor of Kings

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King Pro League (KPL) 2018 match between WF.D vs GK

When Honor of Kings launched in 2015, it struggled as a 3v3 mobile MOBA in China where 5v5 PC MOBA’s League of Legends (LoL) and DOTA 2 were so dominant. TiMi —Tencent’s most profitable and famous game studio today — almost shut down.

Then two things happened, the game was redesigned to 5v5 and location nearby feature was integrated socially.

These changes didn’t catch on until late 2016. By early 2017, everyone started to discover that they could play a very fun, quick-paced ~15 min LoL-style game on their phones while waiting in line, at cafes, schools, etc. They were able to see profile pictures to find, chat, and play with nearby gamers. Due to it’s casual nature, Honor of Kings attracted many female gamers — accounting for 54% of its 200M+ users.

This made it viral because location nearby was integrated with WeChat (which has 1 billion users) and it was easy to quickly connect and get into games. Gamers were able to play pick up games with anyone nearby using a local quick team feature where you can just share and enter a 4 digit lobby code to instantly team up with gamers next to them.

After the updates to Honor of Kings, it took around 7 months to become a hit. The game now has over 80 million daily active users, equivalent to the population of Germany. In April 2018 it generated an estimated $185M in one month.

A multiplayer PvP game making billions.

2016 — Clash Royale

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Clash Royale’s TV Royale feature

Clash Royale, an innovative PvP card-style dual lane tower rush game, spring boarded off of Clash of Clans popularity where the characters were inspiration for the cards in CR.

But that wasn’t the only thing innovative about Clash Royale, it had a built in video replay feature called “TV Royale”. And it allowed players to instantly watch and share replays of their recent matches easily and automatically — no record button needed. As a result, Clash Royale became the fastest game to reach 1B YouTube views ever — taking just four months.

YouTube, not Twitch, would become the biggest and most popular platform for gamers and overall youth. In 2012, YouTube reported that game views from subscribers jumped 9X year-over-year and there is an estimated 666M users watching Gaming Video Content in 2017. Then in April 2018, YouTube became the most popular platform among teens 13–17.

What Facebook was for Candy Crush in 2012, YouTube is for Clash Royale in 2016. Clash Royale registered 700M+ players worldwide making $1.2B+/year.

A PvP card-style dual lane tower rush game making billions.

2016 — Fortnite

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Fornite didn’t launch as a mobile game, but unlike most PC/console games it had one key element of the mega-hit mobile games mentioned above — it was free-to-play.

It was also fun and frenetic, from the loot Llama, to rocket riding, to guided missiles, to shopping carts, etc. — constantly so fresh and fun.

Although Fortnite was fun with consistent updates and surprises, free-to-play and interoperability is what made Fortnite spread like wildfire— the ability to play a free game across all platforms (PC, Consoles, and Mobile) was a unique social value proposition.

Look at this social value proposition from a hypothetical angle with phones:

What if LG phone users can only play with LG users and HTC users can only play with HTC users? And all of them can’t play with Apple users? Monster Strike, even with it’s innovative bluetooth local cooperative multiplayer would not become as big a success with such a lack of interoperability across phones.

How horrible does that sound? But that’s been the case for many games in the PC/Mac and consoles market for a long time. The quote below captures why interoperability is the future:

“I think it’s in everyone’s interest to support interoperability. Whatever the history, it’s really in gamers’ interest to play with all of their friends. Gamers who play with their friends spend more and are more engaged.”

— Tim Sweeney, Epic Games Founder and CEO

Tim nails it because there’s a huge social benefit to interoperability especially when the game is (1) fun-to-play and (2) free-to-play because it becomes frictionless to download and play with your friends across any device.

Being able to join the same party as your buddies cross-platform allowed Fortnite to spread across middle/high schools and college campuses everywhere.

Not many games offer such an addictive and inclusive social experience for groups of people who have personal preferences to play on either a PC, Mac, Xbox One, PS4, or phone/tablet. Furthermore, people have to consider spending $30–50 per person or more on a multiplayer title and the game doesn’t work cross-platform across devices each person in their gaming social circle owns – that is a lot of friction.

Also, it’s important to note that being free-to-play on consoles is what accelerated Fortnite’s explosion in America — 49% of gamers in the US prefer consoles as their platform of choice over mobile (30%) and PC (21%) and 162 million people in US TV households own video game consoles. This is very important because Fortnite beat PUBG — which at the time was the most dominant BR game — to console. Console gamers and cross-play between Xbox and PlayStation played a huge role in Fortnite’s viral adoption.

Fornite Battle Royale became a hit in 3 months after launching on Windows, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One in September 2017. It brought in almost $300M in April 2018 on pace to exceed $3.5B+/year and this is all happened when Fortnite has not fully launched in China and isn’t on Android yet.


Prevalent Technology

The success of these multi-billion dollar titles stemmed from social techniques that leveraged key technology platforms of that era, and the platform of today is interoperability.

Fortnite’s cross-platform play is a new sort of social network, one that connects all gamers no matter the system they play on.

As each game creates a new meta* like Candy Crush to Fortnite has, games developed after such mega-hits must adapt to the current meta or get left behind. For example, like how Clash Royale benefited from YouTube success with it’s in-app video replay feature, YouTube now plays a massive role in virality and social discovery — Fortnite YouTube exploded the past few months and Epic helped make it even easier by releasing a built-in replay tool on Consoles and PC. In addition, the hilarious emotes in the game were inspired from real life viral dance videos on YouTube.

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Multiplayer Games Must Put Users’ Social Interests at the Center

For gaming startups, looking at past patterns to connect the dots backwards so you can then connect dots forward is critical. Games like Candy Crush, Monster Strike, Honor of Kings, Clash Royale, and Fortnite have shown us that leveraging key technology to put your users’ social interests at the center of what you are creating can lead to massive success.

It’s important to understand that these games are actually very well designed games — great and FUN products, otherwise it would never achieve the traction it did socially — period.

Social Networking Roots

The founders of King Digital Entertainment, the British start-up behind the hit Candy Crush Saga, got their start with an online dating social network before creating Candy Crush.

Mixi was as a myspace-ish social network before moving into mobile games.

Tencent was an internet search and social network company before developing mobile games.

They had social network roots before moving into mobile games.

Visionaries are planting roots now because they see the future — connecting current and innovative social techniques with technologies/platforms to create the next unicorns.

Jeff Chau is the Founder/CEO of GameGether and formerly, GM/Head of Mobile at Immortals, Team Liquid and GM at Apple.

*META in gaming stands for Most Effective Tactic Available, when something is “meta” it usually means the most popular/commonly used weapons, item builds, tactics, strategies, etc.

Jeff "SuiJeneris" Chau

Written by

Founder/CEO GameGether | Mobile Gaming/Esports | Ex: GM Apple, Esports Org Co-Founder, Pro Player, GM Immortals, Team Liquid. Esports conf speaker & commentator

Jeff "SuiJeneris" Chau

Written by

Founder/CEO GameGether | Mobile Gaming/Esports | Ex: GM Apple, Esports Org Co-Founder, Pro Player, GM Immortals, Team Liquid. Esports conf speaker & commentator

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